President Donald Trump continues to refuse to cede the election. His national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, is enabling the mayhem, four senior officials told The Daily Beast.
O’Brien—once viewed as a potential check on Trump’s erratic national security demands—endorsed the installation of a pair of Trumpists at the Pentagon’s highest levels, while a defense secretary O’Brien has long opposed was fired by tweet.
One official claimed that O’Brien has been supportive of a peaceful transfer of power, joking in a Monday event about Trump’s loss and directing his staff to begin drafting transition materials. But three other officials told The Daily Beast that O’Brien has emerged as one of Trump’s biggest enablers at a decisive moment, supporting the president’s bid to retain power even though it is being waged through a nationwide disinformation campaign.
According to multiple officials, O’Brien had for months complained about now-fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and his pushback against the president’s demands, including that the military be used for political purposes.
This week, officials say, O’Brien supported the removal of several top officials at the Pentagon and favored Christopher Miller, a former NSC official who moved to the National Counterterrorism Center, to replace Esper as secretary of defense. He also approved of the installation of Kash Patel as Miller’s chief of staff, officials said. Patel worked previously under O’Brien at the National Security Council. One senior official described Miller and Patel as “O’Brien’s boys.” Patel is also said to be close with another former NSC colleague, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who is now the Pentagon’s senior intelligence official.
One official described it to the Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe as the NSC taking over the Pentagon, while another tried to absolve O’Brien of primary responsibility. “The personnel changes at DOD [the Department of Defense] have been run by a very small tight-knit circle around the president. The traditional national security voices have been excluded from those discussions,” this official told The Daily Beast. One other senior administration official pointed the finger at John McEntee, the head of the presidential personnel office, as working with Patel to orchestrate the purge at the Pentagon.
Other officials familiar with the matter noted that O’Brien has also pushed national security officials to publicly embrace the absurd Trump message that the election has not been certified and that there are still legal battles playing out across the country that could turn in the president’s favor.
“If you even mention Biden’s name… that’s a no-go, you’d be fired,” one national security official said. “Everyone is scared of even talking about the chance of working with the [Biden] transition.”
Asked if officials in the White House feel comfortable saying Biden’s name in the West Wing, one senior White House official said, half-jokingly, “Sure, you can say his name. If you’re talking about who lost the election to the president.”
Behind closed doors, one official claimed, O’Brien has been much more forthcoming about Trump’s loss and the need to prepare for a transition. The problem, the other officials said, is that O’Brien hasn’t made that known to the commander in chief.
O’Brien, who stepped into his current position as national security adviser in September of 2019, has deep ties to the Republican Party and was viewed by national security officials upon his arrival in the White House as someone who would be able to keep Trump in check. Since stepping into the position, however, officials who have worked with him say O’Brien has supported the president at every turn. One former senior national security official said he is known among his staff as a yes-man. “He does whatever Trump says,” one current national security official said.
It’s getting harder to find the heavy hitter who will tell Trump to concede. Three sources say it’s crystal clear to many around Trump that his legal challenges, launched without any evidence of massive voter fraud, will not change the result of the election, even with Attorney General Bill Barr’s nationwide hunt for voter-fraud material. Yet the dynamics of personal loyalty that bind Trumpworld together deter many of his closest advisers from telling him that his presidency is over.
“It's like dealing with a lunatic on the subway. Everyone just kind of sits and stares ahead, pretends they can't hear him, and waits for him to eventually get off,” a GOP source close to the administration told The Daily Beast.
A major consequence of Trump’s refusal to concede the result is the chaos underway across the national security apparatus.
At the State Department, officials say there has been no guidance or messaging on the election. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a press conference, “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” It caused international confusion over whether the chief American diplomat was really maintaining that the defeated Trump would not relinquish power—and shock amongst State Department employees who wanted to know what Pompeo would say about Trump’s strongman-like refusal to leave.
“We all watched to get a clue. And I suppose we got it… whether he was kidding or not, it was appalling. But we’ve come to expect that kind of disdain by now,” said a senior department official.
Pompeo spent the aftermath intensifying his joking-not-joking position that Trump has not lost the election. Asked on Fox News Tuesday night about the influx of foreign leaders congratulating Biden, Pompeo rejoindered, “We’re reminding everyone that all the votes haven’t been counted.” He’ll have a lot of opportunities to spread the message. On Friday, Pompeo departs for a week-plus trip to France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
Whether or not Pompeo believes he has more time in office, he’s governing like he’s in a hurry. On Tuesday came yet another round of sanctions on Iran-tied “procurement networks.” He approved a massive $23 billion arms sale to the UAE— the apparent cost of Abu Dhabi’s recognition of Israel— that includes the advanced F-35 jet fighter and 18 weapons-capable Reaper drones. To little fanfare, Pompeo gave the department’s counterterrorism chief, Nathan Sales, the task of coordinating the global coalition against the so-called Islamic State, and made Joel Rayburn the special envoy for Syria, after announcing Amb. Jim Jeffrey’s retirement from both roles on Monday.
All that has sparked speculation and fear that a last-minute confrontation with Iran may be in the offing—particularly considering the ongoing fallout from a stunning week at the Pentagon that the department has yet to explain.
There is uncertainty over what exactly Patel, Cohen-Watnick, and the new policy chief, Anthony Tata, have been directed to do at the Pentagon. Theories run the gamut from retribution against officials perceived to be disloyal to Trump, to blocking the flow of intelligence to an inevitable Biden transition, to selectively leaking the GOP information perceived to be damaging to Biden or Obama.
Cohen-Watnick, according to a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity, has a lot of opportunity before him. In addition to his elevation to Pentagon intelligence chief, he remains in charge of the Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict directorate, making him simultaneously the Pentagon official with oversight responsibilities over all intelligence and special-operations missions.
"Basically, a person who is completely unqualified is taking the crown jewels, but because he has close connections in the White House, there isn’t much that can be done at this point," the official said.
A Pentagon representative did not respond to a request for comment.
Patel, however, is believed to be the White House mole in the secretary of defense’s office, although the Pentagon official expressed a high degree of confidence in Miller's integrity.
Two people who speak regularly to Trump say that even before the 2020 presidential race was called by major networks on Saturday, they had each independently told Trump that he should fire Christopher Wray, the FBI director, before Inauguration Day 2021—even if Trump is a lame duck. One of these sources said that they had told the president that getting rid of Wray, win or lose, would be the “right and just thing to do,” given how much the bureau chief had, in their view, done to undermine Trump.
For now, virtually every major player in Trumpworld, starting with the president, is publicly operating as if a second term could magically materialize tomorrow.
“Until a judge says ‘No,’ you have to continue, you should continue, like you’re going to have a second term. You can’t just stop governing,” said Barry Bennett, who served as a senior Trump adviser during the 2016 campaign. “You don’t hand over the keys until January 20th... Some transitions have gone pretty bad. If you go back to Bush in 2000, no one expected Clinton to stop being president simply because Gore lost the election in November. So, of course he has to pursue his policies. He should.”
“As Justice Ginsburg said, a president is ‘elected for four years.’ So, for four years [Donald Trump's] president... If a vacancy opens up, he should fill it. Why shouldn't he?” said Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House and an informal adviser to Trump. Asked about the White House's continued vetting of political appointees for a second term that isn't happening, and whether or not that is appropriate given Biden’s decisive win, Gingrich replied, "Of course [it's appropriate]. He hasn't conceded. Why should he act as though he has conceded?”
One reason that even most Republicans recognize: He lost the election.
“He has to go. His team is seeping already. I've passed along four resumes today,” said the GOP source close to the administration. “I really think the worst for him is that all this just kind of goes on without him. He'll sulk out the door and my guess is Biden walks into an empty White House… What a fucking clown show.”