Douglas Macgregor Installed at the Pentagon
Douglas Macgregor, President Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Germany, was installed at the Pentagon as senior advisor on Wednesday, as part of a broader post-election shakeup.
His retention by President Trump was first reported by Axios, and confirmed to me by Macgregor on Wednesday. It is a show of force from an embattled White House. In recent days, Trump has “terminated” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Mark Tomb and other figures. There is considerable speculation that Trump will fire CIA director Gina Haspel next. Haspel met with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday night, in a summit with an undisclosed agenda.
Trump’s shakeup is the latest in an administration defined by them. He tore through his political staff in 2017— dispensing with Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer and Anthony Scaramucci. He convulsed his national security and legal apparatuses in 2018 and 2019— installing Mike Pompeo and John Bolton over Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, and firing the generally-revered James Mattis, while replacing longtime loyalist Jeff Sessions with Matthew Whitaker, and later, William Barr.
Trump had a notorious flameout with Bolton, and in recent weeks, has complained Barr has been recalcitrant in going after the administration’s political enemies. Scaramucci and Bolton said, in no uncertain terms, that Trump should not be re-elected. Mattis and former chief of staff John Kelly rebuked the president during the general election; Mattis said Trump had made a “mockery of the Constitution”; Kelly proclaimed that Trump was “the most flawed person” he had ever met. Only Scaramucci — with his administration tenure, by far, the most short-lived — formally backed Biden, however.
Notably, the upheaval in Trump’s ranks has seldom indicated a policy trajectory, rather interpersonal rancor. The president has a demonstrated preference for personal rapport over policy alignment— and lengthy discussion of the nitty-gritty. Sessions is considered the godfather of “Trumpism,” but he was the subject of a campaign of personal destruction on the part of the president to the bitter end. Trump replaced Bolton with “Bolton lite” Robert C. O’Brien. Trump ignominiously got rid of Rex Tillerson, though Tillerson’s foreign policy realism is probably closer to Trump’s stated preferences than the Pompeo doctrine.
None of it mattered.
Still, there are some slivers of evidence this shuffle could be significant, especially with the specter of President-elect Biden haunting the administration. Macgregor is on the record as favoring full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Trump’s previously-announced choice to be envoy to Kabul also has publicly favored withdrawal. “The president is taking back control of DOD. It’s a rebirth of foreign policy. This is Trump foreign policy,” a U.S. official claimed to The Intercept’s Lee Fang. Between the lines, it would be part and parcel with a strategy to hamstring the almost-certain, incoming Democratic administration. Trump could be going full realist on Afghanistan, while at the same time delivering the coup de grace — an assault of further sanctions — in four years of undeterred belligerence toward the Iranian regime.
Some of the president’s most virulent critics see a shakeup in the Pentagon as evidence of a last-minute consolidation of power by Trump, as he attempts to dispute the election and avoid ejection from office. “A coup is under way,” Timothy Snyder of Yale said on Wednesday, using language more often found on the right in recent months. “And the number of participants is not shrinking but growing. The coup has to be defeated, and the lie has to be answered.”
If it came to that — if Trump attempted to use the military in a hold on power — there is every evidence it would be an unwinnable struggle. If polling is to any longer be believed, only three percent of Americans believe the president has been re-elected. Trump would not command the faith of his own party’s brass, with Majority Leader McConnell, set to be Washington’s top Republican, having only committed to perfunctory recounts in disputed states. The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, the most influential center-right organs in the United States, have declared Biden the winner. And the military community is by no means monolithically pro-Trump.
If history is any guide, Trump’s latest dismissals are based principally in personal clashes, with perhaps a side of policy prerogative.