On Tuesday, the purge widened dramatically as the White House asked for the resignations of three more top Pentagon officials: Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Anderson, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Joseph Kernan and Pentagon Chief of Staff Jen Stewart. All three are being replaced by staffers more loyal to Trump’s political agenda. Officials said Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist could be the next White House target for dismissal.
These are major shake-ups. But getting rid of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs would be an earthquake. Milley has no intention to resign, several officials told me, adding that Trump has made no decision yet to call for his resignation. Other senior officials who refused to resign, such as USAID deputy administrator Bonnie Glick, have been terminated with no explanation.
Like Esper, Milley has run afoul of a faction of top Trump aides who are purging officials all over the government. Milley sided with Esper internally on the issue of Confederate symbols on military bases, which both support removing, breaking with Trump. Milley also disagrees with some White House officials who want to precipitously withdraw from Afghanistan and Syria. The New York Times reported in June that Milley had angered Trump by disagreeing with him twice to his face, once about using active-duty troops to quash protesters and once about Trump’s order to use chemical agents on protesters during the president’s notorious Lafayette Square photo op. Milley and Esper ultimately decided to accompany Trump on his walk across the square.
“I should not have been there,” Milley said in a National Defense University video a few days later. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Milley would be harder to fire than Esper. He was confirmed by the Senate for a four-year term as chairman in 2019 by a vote of 89 to 1. Replacing him with a political loyalist would be difficult because the Joint Chiefs chairman position has specific requirements, including that it must be filled by a senior military commander (although Trump could exert a waiver). Milley has also worked to stay in Trump’s personal good graces, more successfully than Esper. But officials warned that might not stop the White House officials who want him gone.
Meanwhile, MAGA loyalists are moving in to take advantage of the vacancies already created. Anderson’s sudden departure leaves the Pentagon’s policy shop in the hands of Anthony Tata, a Trump loyalist who once called President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.” Tata withdrew his previous nomination in August for the undersecretary job amid criticism from lawmakers about his past statements and lack of qualifications. He has been serving since then as an “official performing the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy,” a Pentagon statement said.
As for Kernan, officials told me the White House intends to install staunch Trump loyalist Ezra Cohen-Watnick as acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Cohen-Watnick, who was pushed out as senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council by H.R. McMaster in 2017, has been serving as the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats since May. Stewart is reportedly being replaced by Kash Patel, an NSC staffer who previously worked for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).
Trump passed over Norquist on Monday to appoint Christopher C. Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to the acting defense secretary position. Miller, a former Special Forces officer, is seen as more loyal to the political agenda of the president. Democratic lawmakers are already calling on him to follow the rule of law and the Constitution if Trump asks him to intervene in the election or the transition.
Several officials told me that a group of Trump loyalists is seizing the opportunity to purge the Pentagon (and several other agencies) largely without close supervision from the president, who remains focused on fighting the outcome of the election. By installing themselves in top jobs, these officials are stalling the transition, settling scores and advancing their own ambitions. Many officials in the agencies they are taking over are also now wondering whether the loyalists’ plan includes helping Trump resist leaving office.
Trump’s decision to jettison Esper only days after the election was a long time coming, and it wasn’t just about Esper’s opposition to using active duty troops against protesters in June, as many have reported. Esper also broke with Trump on the Confederate symbols issue, failed to offer full-throated support when Trump pardoned a soldier convicted of war crimes, and committed various other perceived acts of disloyalty.
What’s odd is that Trump mocked Esper for being too soft, repeating that some call him “Yesper,” which seems to indicate Esper was too loyal to Trump. In his exit interview with the Military Times, which he gave on Nov. 4 because he knew what was coming, Esper insisted he was not a “yes man” because he didn’t lavish effusive praise on Trump, like other senior officials.
But that doesn’t capture the whole complicated reality, since Esper also took actions aimed at demonstrating his loyalty to the president (such as defending Trump’s troop withdrawals and efforts to extort allies in public). He was trying to please everybody and failed to satisfy anyone. That position was ultimately untenable.
The moment of truth will come if and when the General Services Administration certifies that Joe Biden won the election, making it the law of the land. Trump may order his officials not to comply. That could force every senior official, including Milley, to choose between following the law or staying loyal to the president.
If such a development comes to pass, the continuing crisis atop the Pentagon and across the government would reach a new and dangerous level, leaving our country during this fraught transition even more unstable and unsafe than it has already become.