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‘Decapitations’ at DOD: ‘A Purge,’ ‘A Coup’ or Something Else?

The dismissals have been called 'nefarious,' a 'purge,' a 'dangerous day' and Trump 'burning down' the Defense Department.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller waits for the arrival of Minister of National Defence of Lithuania Raimundas Karoblis November 13, 2020 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Hawks are screeching about a series of high profile firings and resignations that occurred at the Pentagon last week, seeing in the personnel moves a dark portent of a possible coup by the Trump administration. The dismissals are “nefarious… decapitations,” according to The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin; while journalist Mona Charen dubbed the high-profile resignations a “purge.”

“The president is burning down the Department of Defense in the midst of a presidential transition, which in my experience is unprecedented in American history,” said Eric Edelman, former under secretary of defense and ambassador to Turkey.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper was summarily dismissed last Monday by tweet. Several other top Pentagon hands swiftly followed Esper out the door: his chief of staff, Jen Stewart, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, James Anderson, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, and Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan, undersecretary of defense for intelligence. In addition, Trump is reportedly considering firing CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Esper’s firing represents “a dangerous day” for American national security, according to Kevin Baron, executive editor of Defense One. Baron says the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force were “blindsided” by Esper’s departure, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were unprepared for his removal.

It’s not just their removal that has the national security establishment up in arms.

The named replacements are anathema to the military-industrial establishment, particularly Senate-rejected retired Army General Anthony Tata, who has a history of Islamophobic comments, as top Pentagon policy official, former aide to retired Gen. Michael Flynn Ezra Cohen-Watnick as acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor, a tireless advocate to end America’s endless wars, as special assistant to Christopher Miller, the new acting Pentagon Chief.

Trump is “planning more wildly irresponsible personnel moves,” writes Bill Kristol. “I remain alarmed.”

Is all this agitation justified? Are Trump’s personnel decisions placing the country in grave danger?

When considering how much an impact firing the Pentagon chief has, it is worth noting that Trump already has had an unprecedented number of people leading the Defense Department. In four years, Trump has had five chiefs.

Here’s how that stacks up historically: President Obama had four Secretaries of Defense in eight years, George W. Bush had two in eight years, Clinton had three in eight years, George Bush Sr. had two in four years, Reagan had two in eight years, and Carter had one in four years.

If the unprecedented turnover at the top of the Pentagon during Trump’s administration was not a threat to national security before, it is hard to imagine why it would be during Trump’s lame-duck.Whatever “danger” or “damage” these commentators imagine Miller can get up to, he has less than 70 days left at the Defense Department.

But there is a deeper reason for the panicked, hair-on-fire response from the establishment.

It turns out the “decapitation” at the Pentagon may have been a very rational, logical response to the DOD’s stonewalling on Trump’s policy objectives.

“Secretary Esper was resisting the president… on a number of policy matters,” Edelman said senior sources at the Pentagon told him.

That resistance was particularly sharp when it came to Afghanistan.

Esper had sent a memo to the White House outlining DOD concerns “about a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, including notably the fact that the Taliban hasn’t met the conditions … that needed to be met before a withdrawal could take place.”

Leaving aside how exiting a war that is in its 19th year could be described as “precipitous,” Trump had promised repeatedly over the summer that the U.S. “should” withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by Christmas. In consultation with the Pentagon, a plan was drawn up to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan from roughly 8,000 down to 4,000. White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien has stated that the number will further decrease to 2,500.

However, in an October interview with NPR, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Mark Milley contradicted O’Brien, and said that any withdrawal would be condition-based.

The DOD was dragging its feet on Afghanistan because Esper feared a direct presidential order to withdraw, he admits to the Military Times.

Describing the Pentagon’s wait-and-see Afghanistan strategy, Esper said, “Now, if I were the president, I’d say, ‘Really? Here you go. Here’s a written piece of paper. You’re coming home by December.’”

Esper was desperately seeking to avoid just that.

The stalling tactics Esper admits to are reminiscent of the scenes from Bob Woodward and Miles Taylor’s books, where both authors describe Trump’s staff removing memos from his desk in order to redirect his attention and distract him from executing policy they disagreed with.

Esper had reasons to be worried about a direct order to withdraw. The commander-in-chief is completely within his rights to order the military to withdraw from Afghanistan, said Mark Perry, senior analyst with the Quincy Institute, in an interview with The American Conservative. 

Now that Esper is out, Defense One’s executive editor warns that the newly hired “Trump loyalists” could turn “the foundational institutions of U.S. national security… into the personal security services he’s always envisioned them to be.”

Esper says he will be replaced by someone who is “a real ‘yes man.'”

In other words, the Pentagon will be led by someone who agrees with Trump’s desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan before the end of his presidency.

In a memo, acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller outlined his goals:

“This is the critical phase in which we transition our efforts from a leadership to supporting role. We are not a people of perpetual war — it is the antithesis of everything for which we stand and for which our ancestors fought. All wars must end.”

Exactly a week after Esper was unceremoniously dismissed, the Pentagon issued a notice to commanders to prepare to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500, and to reduce the number of troops in Iraq to 2,500 by January 15.

Despite the dark rumors, Esper and his associates weren’t fired because they failed to assist Trump in a domestic military takeover, or because they were insufficiently loyal and didn’t grovel enough before the person of Donald Trump. The real reason for their dismissal is simple: Esper didn’t think U.S. troops should be removed from Afghanistan by Christmas. Trump disagreed.

The commander in chief has “the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views” are aligned with his own, as former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said. This hardly represents a coup.

about the author

Barbara Boland is TAC’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Previously, she worked as an editor for the Washington Examiner and for CNS News. She is the author of Patton Uncovered, a book about General George Patton in World War II, and her work has appeared on Fox News, The Hill UK Spectator, and elsewhere. Boland is a graduate from Immaculata University in Pennsylvania.  Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.

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