Pentagon Reorganization Raises Alarms in Final Days of Trump Administration

A series of senior officials have been fired or resigned amid an already tumultuous presidential transition

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

President Donald Trump still hasn't conceded defeat in last week's presidential election.

Now, amidst a spate of firings and resignations at the Department of Defense, Trump has set off a new wave of controversy.

On Monday, President Trump announced that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had been "terminated" in a short post on Twitter. He was replaced, wrote the president, by Christopher Miller, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Miller will be the fourth official to lead the Pentagon under Trump's tenure.

Esper's departure set off a wave of departures of other senior officials, including the defense secretary's staff and those overseeing policy and intelligence.

Those who were fired or resigned were quickly replaced by a cast of controversial figures.

Anthony Tata, who took over as the Pentagon’s acting policy chief following the resignation of James Anderson, had peddled conspiracy theories on social media in the past, and once referred to former President Barack Obama as a "terrorist leader."

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who replaced Joseph Kernan as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, has been close ally of Michael Flynn. Flynn, who served as former national security adviser for less than a month in 2017, pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his communications with the Russian ambassador.

Kash Patel, who took over as chief of staff for the new acting defense secretary, previously worked alongside Rep. Devin Nunes in helping Republicans discredit the Russia probe.

On Wednesday, the Department of Defense confirmed another change, that Douglas MacGregor would be serving as senior advisor to Acting Secretary of Defense Miller.

"Mr. MacGregor’s decades of military experience will be used to assist in the continued implementation of the President’s national security priorities," said DOD, in a statement emailed to PEOPLE.

As CNN has reported, MacGregor — a former nominee for U.S. ambassador to Germany — has a history of making racist comments about refugees and immigrants, and has advocated for the use of deadly force at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Though a source told CNN that the "beheadings" were over as of Tuesday evening, many have speculated that FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel, were next in line to be axed.

While presidents can legally hire and fire as they see fit, the moves have raised eyebrows from political insiders, who question why Trump appears to be replacing so many senior officials with loyalists just days after he lost reelection.

Under Esper, the Department of Defense pushed back against many of the administration's most controversial policies, such as a plan to install U.S. troops on American streets during protests against racial injustice.

With his firing — and the installation of Trump loyalists in key positions — those critical of the president worry that the administration is seeking new ways to carry out its wishes during its final days. A source told Axios, for instance, that the moves signal that Trump may be looking to withdraw troops from the Middle East before he leaves office.

In a thread published to Twitter, Democrat Elissa Slotkin — a Michigan Representative and former Pentagon official under Obama — said there are only a handful of reasons to fire a secretary of defense 72 days before leaving office.

“One would be incompetence or wrongdoing, which do not seem to be the issue with Secretary Esper,” Slotkin wrote. “A second would be vindictiveness, which would be an irresponsible way to treat our national security. A third would be because the president wants to take actions that he believes his secretary of defense would refuse to take, which would be alarming."

According to the New York Times, some DOD officials have echoed Slotkin's concerns, privately expressing worries "that the president might initiate operations, whether overt or secret, against Iran or other adversaries during his last days in office."

The DOD did not respond to specific requests for comment regarding the reasoning for the personnel changes, instead directing PEOPLE to a press release announcing the changes.

Regardless of their purpose, the personnel changes haven't assuaged the fears of those concerned by Trump's refusal to concede the election to Biden, who was declared the winner on Saturday and received a significant majority of both electoral and popular votes cast.

Many Trump allies have done little to quell the unfounded claims that the election was somehow a "fraud" or "stolen" from the president, as he has insisted on Twitter.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played into the president's claims, telling journalists — in what appeared to be an attempt at humor — there would be a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration."

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