An apparent purge is underway at the Pentagon, as the Defense Department announced the departure of much of its senior leadership and welcomed hardcore MAGA-ites in their place.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, fired by President Trump on Monday, was just the beginning. Also out are Esper’s chief of staff Jen Stewart and the Pentagon’s top officials for policy and intelligence, its most important directorates outside of acquisitions.
Esper’s replacement is Chris Miller, whom Trump moved over from the National Counterterrorism Center. Multiple sources who know Miller, an ex-Green Beret, give him high marks for his competence and integrity, even as central questions about his appointment remain, including its very legality. A former colleague of Miller’s told reporter Jeff Stein that Miller would not take part in a coup to keep Trump in office after the president lost re-election.
Whatever Miller’s reputation, the new or elevated arrivals at the Pentagon are Trump loyalists. One of them has slandered Islam. The others reportedly helped the administration attempt to discredit the various Russia probes.The new acting undersecretary for policy is Anthony Tata, who called Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” in 2018 and claimed Obama is secretly Muslim. “Islam is the most violent religion I know,” Tata has said. The job Tata claimed on Tuesday was one the GOP-led Senate Armed Services Committee refused to confirm him for; the administration installed Tata to a lower-ranking job instead.
“Every day that he serves as undersecretary of Defense is a day where all Americans are in danger. President-elect Biden must remove him as soon as possible,” Scott Simpson of the civil rights group Muslim Advocates said in a statement reacting to Tata’s new position.
Politico reported that the former acting undersecretary for policy, James Anderson, quit after clashing with the White House.
Miller’s chief of staff, a job that helps set the agenda for the Pentagon, is Kash Patel. As a senior aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, Patel crafted a dubious memo, denounced by the FBI, to discredit the origins of the investigation into the Trump team’s contacts with Russia. Patel arrives at the Pentagon from the National Security Council, and before that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
The top Pentagon official for intelligence is now Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former NSC aide to the convicted Mike Flynn. Cohen-Watnick was one of the NSC aides who reportedly helped Nunes invent a scandal over the “unmasking” of Trump officials whose communications were swept up in U.S. surveillance of foreign targets. The Washington Post reported last month that a prosecutor empowered by Attorney General Bill Barr ended his probe into the unmasking without discovering misconduct. After spending his post-White House time at the Justice Department, Cohen-Watnick had quietly settled in at the Pentagon.
“That Ezra Cohen-Watnick is the acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying,” said a former Trump NSC official.
The Pentagon said the resignation of Cohen-Watnick’s predecessor as senior Pentagon intelligence official, Joseph Kernan, was “planned for several months.” It did not say the same about Anderson or Esper’s chief of staff, Jen Stewart.
It is currently unknown what mandate the new loyalists have at the Pentagon with over two months remaining in the Trump administration.
“I want to thank Dr. Anderson, Admiral Kernan and Jen Stewart for their service to the nation and the Department. Over their careers each has contributed greatly to the national defense and the future of the Department of Defense. We wish them the best in their next endeavors,” Miller said in a Tuesday statement.