There was a growing feeling of anticipation among Pentagon staffers Thursday over the arrival of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team—which so far hasn’t showed up. The offices designated for those who will help to shape the future of the Defense Department sat empty. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the department’s current leadership has not been in touch with Trump’s transition team.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration-in-waiting is fielding résumés for top national-security positions, but not from the usual tier of seasoned professionals with years of policy and management experience that incoming administrations usually turn to.
Many in those elite cadre had previously disavowed Trump when he was a candidate. Now, the transition team is having more success with its outreach to former members of the military and intelligence world who are more versed in the sharp end of national security—from experience on the battlefield.
This warrior class includes people who’ve maintained their security clearances for work in the defense contracting and conflict-management arena.
Two people who are now working to build Trump’s bench say “hundreds of people” are sending in their résumés, many of them novices to working in the halls of power in Washington.
Three such candidates told The Daily Beast they were in talks with transition officials to take senior positions. All had served in the military and are now working in private industry, and at least one had worked with Trump adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, in the special-ops world.
What unites them is a frustration with the Obama administration’s take on Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS, al Qaeda, and Islamic militant ideology overall, and a hope that President-elect Trump will unleash the military-industrial complex on the terrorist problem on a scale not seen since the years just after the 9/11 attacks.
At the same time, career officials who’ve spent the past several years working for President Obama are wondering if now is the time to get out. One senior administration official told The Daily Beast that during multiple staff meetings on Wednesday several career staff on the National Security Council expressed their desire to quit, as the reality of a Trump administration sunk in.
Trump’s transition process is running behind because campaign staff didn’t think they had a chance to win until about a month ago, when internal polling signaled a possible victory. The transition team started reaching out via Trump advisors to Republican national security professionals willing to take a chance on the candidate, and they began a quiet outreach to like-minded individuals who already possess security clearances.
The incoming administration needs those seasoned hands now. Trump laid out ambitious but conflicting plans for the military during the campaign. He said he wanted to add 70,000 troops to the Army, part of an expansionist vision for the armed forces. But he called for the United States to stop nation building, raising questions about why the country needs a larger standing ground force.
Trump also called for more military spending, and yet at the same time, tax cuts, so it is unclear how his administration would pay for his plan. In the halls of the Pentagon, some are wondering whether the military’s top generals will stay in their jobs under a Trump administration given that, as a presidential candidate, Trump said the generals had “been reduced to rubble” under the Obama administration.
The lack of direction from the Trump team has made it difficult for Pentagon officials to start making plans for possible adjustments to the U.S. defense strategy. Officials are not sure, for example, what effect the election could have on plans to retake the capital of self-proclaimed Islamic State’s caliphate, Raqqa, which is scheduled to begin next year.
When The Daily Beast asked three defense officials for possible changes ahead, the answer was always the same: a shrug of the shoulders.
Names of potential defense secretaries under a Trump administration are starting to emerge. Among the leading candidates are Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions and Stephen Hadley, a former national security advisor to George W. Bush.
In the absence of a transition team, some began trying to read what a Secretary Sessions or Secretary Hadley would mean for the military, although Hadley told NBC News that he is “not participating in the transition at this point.” Sessions is an Army veteran who served at the tail end of the Vietnam War and has been a long-term Trump adviser. Hadley, meanwhile, helped shape the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a war that Trump claimed he didn’t support but that the record shows he did. That war also defined the careers of nearly all the commanders who would serve under President Trump.
Both candidates were first introduced to the military at two very different periods in history. Sessions served at a time when the draft came to an end and the military became an all-volunteer force. Hadley was part of an administration that pushed that volunteer force into the longest period of war in American history.
“Those things have to shape how they would approach the job,” one defense official conjectured.
Former Republican staffers who worked for Hadley say if he takes the post, they and others would likely follow, believing his prior experience would spell success—especially with a commander in chief who is likely to delegate rather than micromanage the Pentagon.