“When they hear [the White House is] by carefully considering the people of good faith, I’m sure they are looking over their shoulder a little bit,” said Arnold Punaro, former staff director for the Committee on Armed Services of the u.s. Senate, and a retired Marine Corps major general.
Kathryn Wheelbarger, the department’s top acting official to oversee the international security affairs, and Elaine McCusker, the acting comptroller, this week has been the latest victim of the purge, after Esper and his deputy, David Norquist, has failed to save their applications for permanent executive positions, according to two people with knowledge of the deliberations.
Wheelbarger submitted his resignation Wednesday, less than a week after the White House vetoed his appointment to the Pentagon’s No. 2 official of the supervision of the military intelligence on the loyalty of the concerns, according to five people familiar with the move. White House officials took the problem to his association with the former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis — who resigned in protest, Trumpet, of its decision to withdraw the troops of Syria, in 2018, and has recently published a blistering public criticism of the president and the late Father John McCain, who has feuded publicly with Trump before his death, in 2018, POLITICO previously reported.
The new Wheelbarger resignation, the Pentagon confirmed on Thursday evening, two days after McCusker has also announced that she would resign, following the White House’s decision to withdraw its application for stable controller. McCusker called into question last summer, the freezing of military aid to Ukraine, which is at the heart of Trump removal.
The departures follow the ousting of John Rood, the Pentagon’s top policy official until February, and Glenn Fine, the department’s acting inspector general, who resigned in May after Trump has effectively removed him as chairman of a committee of supervision of $ 2 trillion in emergency coronavirus funding.
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper and his team have worked with the White House since She came into office to identify and fill higher positions. Hoffman noted that since last July, the Senate has confirmed 14 posts — 11 unanimously — and hired the 38 members of the senior management of the service, along with 34 other persons named in the queue. Of the total management positions in the Department, 80 percent are filled, and 14 percent were committed against, ” he said.
“We have seen a large number of these positions and are in a much better position with regard to the staffing levels that we were last summer,” Hoffman said. “The secretary has been focused on the identification and recruitment of well-qualified and competent candidates for the DoD.”
A spokesman for the White House has not responded to a request for comment.
The purge is affecting all federal agencies, not just DoD. But the White House’s withdrawal of several DoD nominees serves as a reminder to senior Pentagon officials, both politicians and career civil servants, not to cross a president who is keeping score.
“If there was something in his mind that the White House was not attentive, I think it was disabled fairly quickly,” said a third person familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity. “From this point of view, it reinforces a reminder of who they all work for.”
Experts worry that the loyalty purge, the price of the Pentagon’s talent and institutional memory, and more expandable than the civil servants who will remain as the department struggles to fill more than a dozen leadership positions.
“This kind of churn is generally bad because of the wider the cracks are, the more things fall through the cracks,” said Lindsay Cohn, an associate professor at the Naval War college, who was speaking in a personal capacity.
The campaign also has over politicizes critical Pentagon jobs, Cohn said.
“Obviously, the political appointments are politicized in the sense that they must be of the people the president trusts and feels faithfully execute the order of the day, but they are also in positions of public trust and service,” said Cohn. “Mr. Trump, it is very clear that he has no room for even mild dissent, and that he has no desire to include anyone, but the true loyalists in his government.”
It may also have a deterrent effect on people considering a job in the Pentagon.
“I’ve never seen something like this before,” said a former senior DoD official who served in the Obama administration. “There are good experienced and qualified people who are more interested in the opportunity to serve because they do not want to be exposed to this kind of situation. It is a true cold weather on the environment for the people.”
The last two resignations come in the midst of the brewing tension between the White House and the Pentagon. Both Esper and the General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has angered the president on two fronts this month: first, when they are well away from his threat to deploy active-duty troops to quell demonstrations in the capital of the nation, and later, when they have expressed their support for an effort to rename Army bases named after Confederate generals, a movement Trump opposes.
Esper and Milley seems to have weathered the storm of Friday, with Trump say on Fox News that “If it is the way in which they are fallen, I think it’s good.”
However, the situation raises questions as to how to force the Pentagon’s leaders — especially Esper — can push back against a White House focused on the eradication of those who are considered not loyal enough to carry it.
The high-profile ousters started with Rood, in February, after John McEntee, the new director of the White House, Office of Presidential Personnel, has launched a campaign to vet politicians and career civil servants for their loyalty to the president.
“Johnny McEntee — that is really the only name that matters as much as the OPP is going on,” said a former White House official familiar with the discussions.
In some cases, even the appearance of disloyalty is enough to harm the career of officials. The white House and Pentagon officials who were asked about Wheelbarger could not point to specific issues that they had with his performance; current and former officials told POLITICO the tension was simply its links to Mattis and McCain.
Esper had nothing but praise for Wheelbarger after the news broke about his resignation Thursday.
“Katie has brought a wealth of experience and professionalism to the Department throughout his service. His leadership in support of the National Defense Strategy is evident in the proud of the accomplishments of his team,” Esper said. “This is someone I’ve known for the past three years, and with sincere appreciation for his many contributions and years of service, I wish Katie the best in what I am sure will be a very bright future.”
The White House, meanwhile, has also made efforts to insert Trump loyalists in the Pentagon’s upper echelon, including the appointment of retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata to replace the Rood, and the appointment of Michael Cutrone, a former staff member of the Vice-Chairman, Mike Pence, to be deputy under secretary of Defense for security cooperation.
Tata was not Esper’s first choice for the job; he first wanted to appoint Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense under Mattis.
Tata is particularly controversial. A series of inflammatory tweets he made two years ago on Islam and updated by CNN drew the attention of senators, democrats and Republicans, as well as at least three prominent retired generals, who have abandoned their support for him.
Former Trump officials denounced the decision to demote Wheelbarger, who has served as acting assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs from November 2018 and is one of the Pentagon’s most prominent representatives, recently appearing before the Congress to discuss the wars in Syria and Afghanistan.
“Katie Wheelbarger is one of the most talented and dedicated public servants with whom I have ever had the privilege to serve. It is a mistake not to promote her to the highest levels of service at this time,” said Randy Schriver, who served as assistant secretary of Defense for the Indo-Pacific until the beginning of this year.
Mick Mulroy, who was the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for policy in the Middle East until December, said Wheelbarger is “one of the hardest working, most intelligent and talented, I worked with the government.”
“It must have been confirmed for the work that she has done so well over a year and a half,” Mulroy added.