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Trump Remakes Pentagon’s Leadership as Critics See Crisis

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 11/11/2020 Tony Capaccio, Roxana Tiron and Travis Tritten
a man wearing a suit and tie: James Anderson, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be deputy under secretary of defense for policy, speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 7, 2020. At the confirmation hearing committee members may ask the nominee for navy secretary whether achieving the administration's goal of a 355-ship fleet over the next decade, up from 299 today, is realistic in light of cost constraints. © Bloomberg James Anderson, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be deputy under secretary of defense for policy, speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 7, 2020. At the confirmation hearing committee members may ask the nominee for navy secretary whether achieving the administration's goal of a 355-ship fleet over the next decade, up from 299 today, is realistic in light of cost constraints.

(Bloomberg) -- A flurry of changes in the Pentagon’s top ranks is underway as President Donald Trump elevates long-time allies in moves that critics say sends a signal of turmoil in the leadership of the U.S. military just after a contentious election.

A day after Trump fired Pentagon chief Mark Esper by tweet, two senior officials stepped down on Tuesday as did Esper’s former chief of staff. James Anderson, the acting deputy under secretary of defense for policy, didn’t give a reason for his departure in a resignation letter to the president, but praised policies put in place during the Trump administration. He had been in his current post only since June.

Later in the day, the Pentagon said Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Joseph Kernan resigned in what he called a planned departure. In an email to staff, Kernan said “I leave knowing that our efforts will continue given your unrelenting dedication to the security of this Nation.”

Kernan was replaced in an acting capacity by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a Trump aide who worked with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn before being forced out of the National Security Council in 2017. Cohen-Watnick, a friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, went on to work at Oracle Corp., returned to the Trump administration to a position at the Justice Department and played a role in the impeachment saga.

Anderson, meanwhile, was poised to be replaced by his acting deputy, Brigadier General Anthony Tata. Trump had picked Tata for the undersecretary role in June, but his nomination foundered amid controversy over his past remarks, including derogatory comments about Islam.

Beyond Esper, who had a fraught relationship with the White House for months, it wasn’t immediately clear why there was so much changeover taking place at the Pentagon just one week after the U.S. election, with Trump contesting the results. White House officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the changes.

Even though Anderson and Kernan appeared to play down the moves in departure letters, critics said it was a bad signal to America’s rivals abroad.

“It is hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition,” Democratic Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. He warned that the moves could mark “the beginning of a process of gutting the DoD – something that should alarm all Americans.”

The turmoil at the Pentagon comes at a delicate time, with Joe Biden having won the Nov. 3 election but Trump continuing to claim widespread but unsubstantiated charges of voting fraud that he says means he won the election.

Trump dismissed Esper by tweet on Monday without explanation, with the president saying only that “I would like to thank him for his service.” But the president had long bristled at Esper’s failure to be more supportive of him publicly.

Trump appointed Christopher Miller, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting Pentagon chief. As a result of that change, White House National Security Council staffer Kash Patel, moved to the Pentagon as Miller’s chief of staff.

Both Patel and Cohen-Watnick have close ties to Republican Representative Devin Nunes, who helped lead opposition to the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University who specializes in civil-military relations, said there are three likely explanations for the flurry of moves. Those include Trump “settling scores” in the final weeks of his tenure, the president “wanting to do certain reckless policy steps like declassifying information and hastening the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan” or, lastly, lower-ranking people in Trump’s orbit moving to “pad their resume before being forced out into the job market.”

(Updates with analyst comments in final paragraph. An earlier version of this story corrected the fourth paragraph to say that Cohen-Watnick, not Kernan, worked at Oracle.)

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