ANTHONY TATA, a retired brigadier-general, wrote in 2018 that Barack Obama was a Muslim “terrorist leader”. Shortly afterward he accused John Brennan, a former director of the CIA, of sedition, asking Mr Brennan to choose between “firing squad, public hanging, life sentence as a prison b*tch, or just suck on your pistol”. On November 10th Mr Tata was appointed policy chief at the Department of Defence.
His arrival was part of a wider clear-out which also ousted the Pentagon’s chief-of-staff, intelligence chief—and the defence secretary himself. “Mark Esper has been terminated”, tweeted Donald Trump on November 9th. That leaves a vacuum of experienced civilian leadership just as America plunges deeper into a political crisis.
Mr Esper’s dismissal was not out of the blue. When protests over racial injustice rocked the country in June, Mr Esper had outraged protesters first by encouraging governors to “dominate the battlespace” and then by appearing alongside Mr Trump in Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, shortly after the area was forcibly cleared of peaceful demonstrators. Mr Esper quickly apologised for his bellicose language and—contradicting the president—said that he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act, a centuries-old law that would allow the domestic use of federal forces to put down unrest. Mr Trump was furious at that act of modest dissent.
In July Mr Esper provoked the president further. First, he approved a promotion for Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Vindman, who as director for European affairs on the National Security Council had been a key witness during Mr Trump’s impeachment hearing in November 2019 (Colonel Vindman chose to retire). Then he issued an order that in effect banned the Confederate flag, a symbol of the pro-slavery South in America’s civil war, from military facilities. Days later, Mr Trump insisted that “when people proudly have their Confederate flags, they’re not talking about racism…It represents the South.”
That largely settled Mr Esper’s fate. In August the president publicly belittled his defence secretary, calling him “Mark Yesper” (having earlier dubbed him “Mark Esperanto”). In an interview with the Military Times conducted on November 4th and published after his firing, Mr Esper took pride in his record of standing up to the president, asking: “Who’s pushed back more than anybody? Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back.” He went on: “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.”
Mr Esper’s fears are not unfounded. Like Mr Tata, many of the Pentagon’s new leaders are better known as partisan ideologues than serious policy wonks. Kash Patel, the new chief-of-staff, worked for Devin Nunes, a fervently pro-Trump congressman. In 2018 Mr Patel sought to discredit the FBI investigation into Mr Trump’s ties to Russia. Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the new intelligence chief, worked for Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s first national security adviser, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Christopher Miller, picked to succeed Mr Esper, carries less political baggage—he served for three decades in the army, retiring as a colonel in 2014—but has little experience. He led the National Counterterrorism Centre for less than three months. Before that, he was a lowly deputy assistant secretary of defence with responsibility for special forces. It is not clear why he has superseded David Norquist, Mr Esper’s formal deputy, as federal statute demands. Because he has been retired for less than seven years, he may also require a waiver from Congress.
“This is a legal move, but it is not a wise one,” says Peter Feaver, an expert on civil-military relations at Duke University who served in Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s administrations. “Normally, administrations are begging the talent to stay through the lame-duck session so they can continue to govern responsibly.” Mr Biden’s transition team will have to deal with officials who have only just turned up themselves. The change of leadership will also disrupt the department’s budget submission for 2022, which is in preparation.
Perversely, the best-case scenario is that Mr Trump has cleaned out the Pentagon “for the petty joy of settling a score”, as Mr Feaver puts it. A more worrying possibility, entertained by some former senior defence officials, both in and out of the Biden camp, is that he is planning a radical policy move, such as an accelerated withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq.
The darkest scenario is that Mr Trump is consolidating control of America’s security forces to frustrate a peaceful transfer of power. Insiders suspect that the heads of the CIA and FBI may be fired next. Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, America’s most senior uniformed officer, is said to be in the cross-hairs, too. “It all has a terrible ‘burn it down’ on the way out feeling,” tweeted James Stavridis, a former admiral and commander of NATO. ■
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Correction (November 15th 2020): An earlier version of this piece misstated when Mark Esper appeared in Lafayette Square with Donald Trump. This has been updated.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Going, going, Pentagone”