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White House intensifies effort to install Pentagon personnel seen as loyal to Trump

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6 days ago Missy Ryan, Paul Sonne, Josh Dawsey
Donald Trump et al. posing for the camera: President Trump — joined several officials, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, center — departs the White House before having his photo taken outside St. John's Church on June 1. © Patrick Semansky/AP President Trump — joined several officials, including Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, center — departs the White House before having his photo taken outside St. John's Church on June 1.

The White House is intensifying an effort to hire Pentagon personnel with an undisputed allegiance to President Trump at a moment when his relationship with Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has become strained, current and former officials said. 

The changes in mid-level leadership are poised to create a more avowedly political Defense Department and could erode the influence of Esper, who spoke out against Trump’s proposed deployment of active-duty troops to quell unrest in U.S. cities after the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.

White House officials are now redoubling efforts as Trump complains to aides that he has never had a defense secretary who is fully aligned with his foreign policy views and accuses Pentagon officials of trying to undermine him, according to a senior administration official.

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The selection of candidates with connections to the president or White House is a sign of an increasingly assertive approach to personnel matters across the administration, with Trump purging confirmed and acting inspectors general at five Cabinet agencies, sending more-provocative nominees to the Senate for confirmation and sidelining officials he saw as betraying him during the impeachment process.

The personnel shake-up comes as the two top research officials at the Pentagon, Michael Griffin and Lisa Porter, depart for what they called an opportunity in the private sector, and amid tension between the White House and Pentagon brass over whether Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer and former White House official who testified during the impeachment proceedings, should be promoted to colonel.

Officials said the shift in personnel decision-making coincided with the appointment in January of Trump’s former body man, John McEntee, as director of the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office, which controls political appointments. Given a mandate by the president to curb “leakers” and others who are opposed to him, McEntee has taken a more aggressive role in hiring and firing and now is one of the most influential officials in the White House, according to current and former administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal personnel dynamics.

McEntee, who was fired by then-White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, was rehired and became the director of the personnel office as the impeachment process drew to a close. The move put a subordinate Politico described as a college senior in position to handle defense appointments.

Trump has accelerated McEntee’s effort in recent months to examine the Pentagon for “non-loyalists,” according to the senior administration official.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper had worked closely with the White House on recent nominations. “We are pleased with the quality of candidates that have been identified for DoD positions and the pace of their on-boarding,” he said in a statement.

A senior defense official said that Esper had been trying since last year to fill lower-profile vacancies, including deputy assistant secretary of defense positions, and had handpicked some leaders, including new Navy secretary Kenneth Braithwaite.

Given that Esper and Trump “are aligned on major defense policy matters, there tends to be agreement on staffing key positions within the department,” the official said.

The turnover occurs as the Defense Department’s record on diversity faces new scrutiny. After the recent protests, African American military leaders have spoken out about discrimination in the armed forces.

Esper last week announced several new initiatives designed to foster greater diversity in leadership positions across the military and at the Pentagon. Earlier this month, the Senate voted to confirm Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown to lead the Air Force as the military’s first black service chief.

But the department’s civilian and uniformed leadership remains overwhelmingly composed of white men. None of the 22 people tapped by the White House for the highest-level civilian political positions at the Pentagon since Esper took control of the department are African American; three are women.

The stakes are high for Esper at a moment when White House officials have affirmed the president’s frustration with him and as the former Army officer and U.S. Military Academy graduate seeks, at times unsuccessfully, to keep the military out of the polarized politics in which Trump thrives.

The shift at the Pentagon also reflects a White House that has grown more confident in its foreign policy preferences. Because Trump did not come into office with a large foreign policy team, officials said, his first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, had a somewhat freer hand. Several current and former administration officials said there was not enough focus early in the administration on personnel.

“No secretary of defense gets 100 percent of who they want, even people as strong as Cheney and Rumsfeld,” said Arnold Punaro, who has acted as an adviser on the congressional confirmation process, referring to former vice president and defense secretary Richard B. Cheney and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Still, current and former officials describe a White House focused on loyalty to Trump in selecting political appointees at the Pentagon.

The new Pentagon personnel advanced by the White House include Anthony Tata, a retired general and frequent Fox News commentator. His nomination to become the Pentagon’s top civilian policy official is facing a challenge from Democratic lawmakers who have raised concerns about his past statements related to Islam and a tweet in which he described President Barack Obama as a “terrorist leader.”

As the White House has pushed Tata’s confirmation, the Pentagon has announced the resignation of several high-level civilian leaders who officials said had been subject to White House scrutiny over questions about their loyalty.

Earlier this year, the White House announced its intent to nominate Katie Wheelbarger, a senior Pentagon policy official, to a top intelligence job but never sent her nomination to Congress. Wheelbarger stepped down last week after former White House aide Bradley Hansell was nominated for the job. Officials said the White House had viewed Wheelbarger as aligned with her onetime boss, the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a critic of the president.

“There is no duty more important than securing our nation, and no responsibility greater than ensuring the thoughtful employment of military power,” Wheelbarger told Trump in her resignation letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

Earlier this month, Elaine McCusker announced plans to leave her role as acting Pentagon comptroller. McCusker’s nomination to be confirmed in that position was withdrawn after she questioned the legality of the White House’s delay of Ukraine military aid — a hold that Trump ordered and that figured prominently in his impeachment. The Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan watchdog that reports to Congress, found that the White House broke the law in withholding the aid.

Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon under President George W. Bush and has been critical of Trump, said top Pentagon appointees at the Defense Department should be selected for their expertise. “It’s not just treated as a place where you put people in on some kind of political litmus test,” he said.

The new White House personnel team’s first major Pentagon move was to dismiss John Rood, who was selected by Mattis as undersecretary for policy. Rood, a former defense industry executive, had clashed with members of the White House National Security Council staff.

The White House then gave Esper two choices to replace him in the Pentagon’s top policy job: Tata and Douglas MacGregor, a retired Army colonel. Tata was chosen.

Tata, who has little policy experience and was the subject of an Army probe of extramarital affairs before his retirement, is serving as an adviser in Esper’s office pending his confirmation to the post.

David Trulio, a Rood deputy who was expected to be picked for another senior policy role at the Pentagon, left the department shortly afterward.

Rood’s departure also paved the way for a number of candidates with White House links to take on key policy positions, some that do not require Senate confirmation. Those include Michael Cutrone, a CIA analyst who previously served as a White House aide.

Another person now under consideration for an influential position at the Pentagon, according to three current and former officials, is Rich Higgins, a former NSC official who was fired after he circulated a memo claiming that corporate globalists and “deep state” operatives were scheming to remove the president. Higgins later penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “The White House Fired Me for My Loyalty.”

Some officials selected in recent appointments have relevant government experience as well as connections to the Trump White House.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick joined the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats this spring. In 2017, he served as senior director for intelligence at the NSC but had previously been associated with the Pentagon as a clandestine officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Cohen-Watnick received attention in the media when Trump accused Obama, without evidence, of having wiretapped phones at Trump Tower during the presidential campaign. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he had proof that Trump’s communications were swept up by U.S. intelligence during surveillance of foreigners.

Cohen-Watnick was accused in a New York Times article of helping provide that intelligence to Nunes. Cohen-Watnick was removed from his NSC post in mid-2017. His attorney, Mark Zaid, told The Post in 2018 the accusation that he provided the information to Nunes was “completely untrue.” The Times subsequently reported that Cohen-Watnick helped print intelligence reports at the instruction of two senior White House officials that later served as Mr. Nunes’s proof, but didn’t provide the reports to the congressman.

Simone Ledeen, who previously served as a principal director in the Pentagon’s Special Operations office and worked in the Middle East and Afghanistan, became the lead for the department’s Middle East policy​. Her father, Michael Ledeen, co-wrote a book with Michael Flynn, who ran DIA from 2012 to 2014 and later became Trump’s national security adviser.

Louis Bremer, a former Navy SEAL who was nominated to become an assistant defense secretary last month, had received backing from the previous team at the Pentagon, but his nomination stayed on track because he was seen as loyal at the White House.

Bremer has worked at Cerberus Capital Management, whose co-founder Stephen Feinberg is close with Trump. His confirmation hearing has not been scheduled.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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