(CNN) –– The Donald Trump administration made far-reaching changes to the Defense Department’s civilian leadership structure, withdrawing several of its top officials and replacing them with alleged figures loyal to the president, raising concerns at the Pentagon.
The avalanche of changes was announced by the Defense Department in a statement, approximately 24 hours after Trump fired Secretary Mark Esper. The modifications have pushed officials within the Pentagon to the limit. They also fuel a growing sense of alarm among military and civil officials, concerned about what might come next.
Four senior civil servants were fired or resigned since Monday. Among them, Esper, his chief of staff and the top officials who oversee politics and intelligence. They were replaced by alleged officials loyal to Trump, including a controversial figure who promoted fringe conspiracy theories and called former President Barack Obama a terrorist.
A senior defense official told CNN on Tuesday night: “It looks like we ended the beheadings for now,” referring to the string of leaders they removed, including Esper.
Sense of chaos in the Pentagon under Trump’s shadow
However, the actions are likely only contributing to the sense of chaos within the Pentagon, following Trump’s firing of Esper. The president withdrew him two days after his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, was projected as the winner of the presidential election. A conclusion, moreover, that Trump has refused to accept. Meanwhile, concerns are growing that chaos in the transition period could undermine national security.
Senior officials have grappled with Trump’s unpredictable decision-making since he took office. But, the current level of uncertainty has steadily increased since the elections.
Sources with knowledge told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday that the White House now appears focused on going after Esper’s undersecretaries at the Defense Department following his firing on Monday. Esper was succeeded by Christopher Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
Sources indicated that the effort could be because Esper and his team were against a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan. Precisely because it would take place before the required conditions on the ground and other pending security issues were reached, according to sources.
“This is scary, it is very disturbing,” a defense official told CNN. “These are dictatorial measures.”
The new names in the Pentagon: conspirators and Trump loyalists
Among those who took up new positions in the Defense Department is the controversial retired Brigadier Anthony Tata. This general reached the highest political role in the Pentagon and assumed the functions of James Anderson, who resigned on Tuesday, according to another US defense official.
Tata was appointed to be undersecretary of defense for policy this summer. But, his nomination was withdrawn due to bipartisan opposition.
«KFile» de CNN reported that Tata has made numerous Islamophobic and offensive comments. He has also promoted various conspiracy theories. In a series of tweets in 2018, he claimed that Obama was a “terrorist leader.” And he accused him of doing more to harm the United States “and help Islamic countries than any president in history.”
After the withdrawal of his appointment, Tata was appointed “the official who performs the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.” He was to report to Anderson.
Tata is widely regarded as a Trump loyalist who maintained the support of the White House. Even when Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Commission signaled they weren’t willing to support his confirmation earlier this year.
Anderson was acting undersecretary of defense for policy since John Rood was fired by the Trump administration in February. This due to disagreements on a variety of political issues.
It was not immediately clear whether Anderson had been asked to resign.
Anderson has been with the Pentagon since 2018. He first served as assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities. Subsequently, he was deputy undersecretary of defense for policy before assuming the senior policy post following Rood’s firing.
In his farewell message to members of his staff, Anderson said: “I leave knowing that the team will persevere, regardless of what lies ahead. I encourage you all to remain mission-focused, apolitical, and never forget your oath of office. “
Democrats were alarmed by the events.
“It’s hard to overstate how dangerous high-level replacements are in the Defense Department during a presidential transition period. The fact that the Department’s top policy professional resigns the day after the Defense Secretary was fired could mark the beginning of a process of tearing the Department of Defense apart. Something that should alarm all Americans, “said this Tuesday in a statement the president of the Armed Services of the House of Representatives, Adam Smith, Democrat of the state of Washington.
More controversial figures at the Pentagon
Anderson wasn’t the only high-profile figure to come out on Tuesday.
Retired Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Kernan, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, has also stepped down, according to another defense official. It was not immediately clear whether Kernan resigned or was fired, but his departure has accelerated.
Kash Patel will be Miller’s chief of staff, according to an administration official and a US defense official. Patel most recently served as the senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council. He is also a controversial figure who previously worked with Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California on the House Intelligence Committee.
His name was one of those mentioned during the House impeachment inquiry into the Trump administration’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine last year.
Patel has a “very close” working relationship with Miller, the administration official said.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick also assumed a new position. He will be the acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, according to the Pentagon, as Kernan’s replacement.
Cohen-Watnick gained notoriety in March 2017 for his alleged participation in the supply of intelligence materials to the then President of Intelligence of the House of Representatives, Nunes. The congressman later claimed that US intelligence officials were improperly monitoring Trump’s associates.
Will these withdrawals facilitate actions proposed by Trump that the Pentagon has refused?
Multiple civilian and military officials working within the Pentagon raise the question of whether the departure of Esper and other officials will now clear the way for Trump, in his final weeks in office, to call again on initiatives that he wants to execute and those that the Pentagon is opposed.
Among which the specter of using forces in active service under the Insurrection Law against any future protests would be raised again. Another potential mentioned by officials is that it would override the military advice it has been given and bring the troops from Afghanistan home by Christmas.
The US military has long emphasized that withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is based on conditions. These include the Taliban breaking ties with al Qaeda and advancing peace talks with the Afghan government. Two conditions that are not yet met.
But despite the lack of progress, the Trump administration has already substantially reduced US troops in Afghanistan to around 4,500. It is the lowest level since the early days of the post-9/11 campaign.
Miller, whom Trump appointed to head the Pentagon for what will likely be the rest of his administration, has been a force behind some of Trump’s policies directed at Iran and the Hezbollah group. Also from the counter-terrorism efforts linked to the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Prior to leading the NCTC, Miller was director of counterterrorism at the National Security Council.
Miller was born in Iowa and is a retired officer in the US Army. He has also served as an assistant deputy secretary of defense. Miller was seen arriving at the Pentagon on Monday afternoon and, shortly after, met with Milley and other senior staff for critical briefings on topics such as nuclear codes and military operations around the world. Miller told officials not to expect “significant changes at this time,” the source said.
But after less than 24 hours with Miller in office, the top Defense Department official in charge of policy resigned.
“It’s crazy,” said one official.
Officials note that with the firing of Esper and other senior officials, Biden’s transition team will lose the benefit of their experience.
Some officials have also questioned whether Miller has the experience to replace Esper, even as an interim leader.
“Miller is above himself,” in part because he was a relatively low-level official with a background focused on counterterrorism, an official told CNN.
The official added that while Miller is a nice guy, he described him as a “tool” and a “vassal of the NSC” who put on to get the job done.
No one at the Pentagon knows what the big plan is
The official added that no one at the Pentagon is aware of what the grand plan is.
Esper’s firing also raised concerns that other senior national security officials who have been angered by Trump are in a vulnerable position.
CNN reported Monday that Trump and some of his conservative allies have grown increasingly frustrated with CIA Director Gina Haspel in recent weeks. And they have accused her of delaying the release of documents they believe would expose so-called “deep state” plots against Trump’s campaign and transition during the Obama administration, according to multiple current and former officials.
FBI Director Christopher Wray has also drawn Trump’s ire, fueling some uncertainty about his future, according to the same sources.
CNN’s Jake Tapper, Em Steck, Andrew Kaczynski, Nathan McDermott, and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.
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