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The Lame-Duck Massacre

The patterns and portents of Trump’s post-election Pentagon firings.
November 11, 2020
The Lame-Duck Massacre
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during the daily White House coronavirus press briefing April 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In a bizarre and troubling series of events, President Donald Trump has in recent days fired several key officials in the Department of Defense. The rationale behind these actions is unclear, but given the timing—just after his election loss and in the last few weeks before his term in office ends—the informed speculation points in ominous and unsettling directions. And more firings may be on the way.

It is hard to think of an instance of a lame-duck president firing a cabinet secretary, but on Monday Trump “terminated” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Often mocked as ‘Secretary Yesper,’ Esper suspected the ax was going to fall and had a resignation letter ready—and just last week defended his record in an interview with Military Times:

Who’s pushed back [against Trump] more than anybody? Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back… Have you seen me on a stage saying, “Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah”?… At the end of the day, it’s as I said—you’ve got to pick your fights.… I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that—why? Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real “yes man.” And then God help us.

Esper clearly gives himself more credit than most observers would give him.

His replacement, Christopher Miller, has a very thin résumé; he has been the director of the National Counterterrorism Center only since August. Miller is the fourth acting secretary of defense during Trump’s term—and for anyone paying attention to the formalities and legalities that this administration revels in ignoring, his appointment seems somewhat irregular:

Esper’s firing was just the beginning of the massacre. On Tuesday, the acting under secretary of defense for policy, James Anderson, resigned upon a request from the White House. Anderson had only been in the job for eight months, and it was clear that the president wanted not him but his deputy: Tony Tata, who is a kook, a conspiracy theorist, and a bigot. The president had originally nominated Tata months ago but withdrew the nomination after the Senate made it clear that it wouldn’t confirm Tata. Now the job is his.

Later on Tuesday, Jen Stewart, Esper’s chief of staff, also resigned at the request of the White House. Stewart is a respected figure in Washington, having worked for former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Mac Thornberry and for House speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan. She has been replaced in the Pentagon by Kash Patel, a Trump loyalist in a hurry. He worked as a staffer for the House Intelligence Committee under Rep. Devin Nunes, where Patel wrote the infamous and false “Nunes memo” and worked to discredit the Russia probe. He then joined the staff of the National Security Council, where he reportedly misrepresented himself to President Trump as a Ukraine expert (an allegation raised by Fiona Hill during the impeachment inquiry and denied by Patel). When MAGA hack Richard Grenell became the acting director of national intelligence, Patel joined his staff. And now he is the chief of staff to the secretary of defense.

And one more head on the chopping block on Tuesday: The under secretary of defense for intelligence, Joseph Kernan, also resigned. A Pentagon press release said that Kernan’s departure had been “planned for several months,” but the coincidence suggests otherwise. Kernan’s replacement is Ezra Cohen-Watnick, another Trump favorite. Cohen-Watnick was recruited by Mike Flynn to hold the intelligence portfolio at the National Security Council in the earliest days of the Trump administration. Flynn’s successor, H.R. McMaster, tried to get rid of Cohen-Watnick, as he kept clashing with McMaster and leaking conspiracies to Devin Nunes about the Obama administration’s supposed wiretapping of Trump Tower, but Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner intervened with the president on Cohen-Watnick’s behalf. McMaster eventually succeeded in firing him, but like the proverbial bad penny, he keeps showing up: He returned to the administration, first working for the Department of Justice on Trump’s orders, then the Department of Defense—where, until yesterday, he was the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. He has now leapfrogged up the Pentagon org chart.

Among the four Pentagon personnel ousted this week (so far), none was a hardcore Trump loyalist. The same cannot be said about their replacements.

The motivation behind the personnel change, and the reason for its timing, is unclear. Perhaps it has to do with a major policy disagreement, as Jake Tapper has suggested:

Or perhaps, as others have speculated, there’s a last-minute coverup underway:

(Regarding the latter possibility, it is worth mentioning that yet another Nunes/Trump loyalist, Michael Ellis, was installed as the general counsel of the National Security Agency this week.)

Or perhaps Trump is simply purging enemies and rewarding allies—and other officials, especially supposed “deep state” types, may be next. CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray should watch their backs.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.