Trump’s Purging Pentagon of Perceived Enemies?

Presidents have appointed loyalists since time immemorial. Has this one gone too far?

President Trump Arrives on Capitol Hill President Donald J. Trump arrives on Capitol Hill to attend a Senate Republican policy luncheon Tuesday, May 19, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)
Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

Jeff Schogol, the Pentagon reporter for Task & Purpose, reports that “Trump is purging the Pentagon of perceived enemies and installing loyalists in their place, critics say.” The allegations are rather murky.

President Donald Trump has always prized loyalty in his subordinates, but news about pending personnel moves at the Pentagon could indicate the president is determined to root out perceived enemies within the Defense Department. 

Every President has prized loyalty. Indeed, most pack their staff with people who worked on their campaign. Even Barack Obama, whose first cabinet was famously “a team of rivals,” including his chief opponent Hillary Clinton, mostly relied on people like Ben Rhodes, who had been with him from his Senate days.

Jonathan Swan of Axios first reported in February that the White House had compiled a list of civil servants across the government who should be dismissed because they allegedly had not been loyal enough to the president. The ousted government officials will reportedly be replaced by people who are more ardently pro-Trump.

As described, it would be both outrageous and illegal. But all Swan actually reported was that someone in the Trump administration may or may not be compiling a list of Never Trumpers at senior levels of government and considering ways to not promote them to more senior positions. Frankly, if you’re a civil servant,* your political views should be largely unknown.

And, for that matter, I haven’t seen follow-up reporting indicating that anything has actually materialized from this. Indeed, Swan noted that the plan may be to wait until after the November election. At which time, hopefully, it will all be moot.

Since then, it has emerged that Trump intends to nominate retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, a Fox News contributor, to fill the No. 3 leadership position in the Pentagon. Tata left the Army after an investigation found he had affairs with at least two women while serving in uniform, the Raleigh News & Observer reported. More recently, Tata has lauded Trump for his support of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.
Tata is already serving as a senior advisor to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a defense official confirmed following a May 15 news story by Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer.

Filling a vacant appointed position with a nominee of the President’s choice isn’t a “purge” but the routine operation of government.

The two Foreign Policy reporters also first revealed that Michael Cutrone will move from Vice President Mike Pence’s office to the Pentagon, raising concern from some administration officials that Cutrone will undermine Esper by vetting political appointees to the Defense Department based on how loyal they are to Trump.

It would be odd, indeed, for a subordinate appointed official in the DoD to undermine its Secretary. It’s bad governance, especially in an organization that functions under a tight chain of command. But Esper, too, is a Trump appointee. If Trump isn’t happy with him, he doesn’t need subterfuge, he can simply fire him.

Similarly, it’s odd to have a Pentagon official, rather than a White House staffer, vetting candidates for political loyalty. But the President is entitled to loyalists in appointed positions.

Peter Singer, of the New America think tank in Washington, said he has doubts that either Tata or Cutrone are qualified for senior leadership roles in the Pentagon and he doubts they would have been appointed to the Defense Department under previous administrations, both Republican and Democrat.

“I don’t think I am out on a limb saying neither would be the 1st, 2nd, or 23rd choice for those roles in a Reagan, Bush 1 or 2 administration,” Singer told Task & Purpose

But that’s really irrelevant. The President gets to pick the people he wants to nominate for these posts. So long as the Senate confirms them, they’re “qualified.”

I can’t find much information on Cutrone and it’s not clear from the FP report what post it is he’s purportedly being appointed to, other than it being “behind-the-scenes.” Later in the T&P story, it’s given as deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs. That’s a fairly low-level post, of the sort that was often held by 30-somethings in the last administration. It’s not particularly behind-the-scenes, though.

Tata is, from many accounts, a hack on Fox News. But his resume is rather solid: A West Point and School of Advanced Military Studies graduate who made brigadier general and “later served as a school district administrator for two large school districts in the District of Columbia and North Carolina” and “as Secretary of Transportation of North Carolina.” He’s more than qualified, on paper at least, for the job.

And, frankly, the Obama, Bush 43, and Clinton administrations were all packed with loyalists who were less-than-qualified by previous standards. All manner of 20- and 30-somethings were placed into key appointed roles. Most notably for this comparison, Jack Sullivan, who held the equivalent post to Tata’s at the State Department, was only 34 or 35 years old and had zero relevant experience other than being a Hillary Clinton loyalist.

While the recent personnel moves may signal a more aggressive push by the president to exert direct control over the Pentagon, the White House has been deeply involved in selecting officials for defense jobs since the beginning of the Trump administration.

Under then-Defense Secretary James Mattis, several defense officials faced a protracted vetting process because the White House felt that their social media posts were not sufficiently loyal to Trump, a former Defense Department official told Task & Purpose.

I would prefer a President that’s less think-skinned. But scores, if not hundreds, of Republican-leaning national security professionals, myself included, repeatedly went on the record with assertions that Trump is mentally and morally unfit for the Presidency. I believe we have been vindicated. But it’s hardly shocking that he didn’t want us on his team.

But since the Senate acquitted Trump in February of allegedly withholding $250 million of military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to get that country’s government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the president has been particularly vindictive against defense officials over any sign of disloyalty — real or perceived.

If confirmed by the Senate, Tata would replace John Rood, who was fired in February. Rood had certified in May 2019 that Ukraine had made enough progress fighting corruption to allow for the military assistance package to go through, thus undermining Trump’s arguments about why he withheld the aid.

Trump has also withdrawn Elaine McCusker’s nomination to be the Pentagon’s comptroller. McCusker had reportedly raised concerns with the Office of Management and Budget about whether the president’s freeze of military aid to Ukraine was legal.

Likewise, The White House removed Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council in February. During the president’s impeachment inquiry in November, Vindman told lawmakers there was “no ambiguity” that Trump had asked Ukraine’s president to investigate former Biden during the July 25 phone call between the two leaders.

The president is retaliating against defense officials who argued in favor of providing the military aid Ukraine and anyone who stood up to Trump himself, said Evelyn Farkas, a former Defense Department official in the Obama administration whose purview included Russian and Ukraine.

So, again, I would prefer a President who didn’t commit crimes and force those working for him to defend the indefensible. But the Senate, on essentially a party-line vote, acquitted him of the charges. He is, therefore, entitled to carry out the powers of his office.

“People are not being picked here based on their deep expertise, based on their experience, and their judgment,” Farkas sad. “They are being picked here based on the loyalty they have already demonstrated to the president and the president is satisfied they will do whatever it is he decides, whether or not it’s in the best interest of the United States of America or the men and women in the military or the civilian service of the Department of Defense.”

Again, see Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan.

Near the end of the very long story, Schogol acknowledges the reality:

Not everyone believes the personnel moves at the Pentagon are egregious or unusual.

President Trump has the right to expect that the people who work for him will either carry out his policies or resign if they disagree with their commander in chief, a former Pentagon official told Task & Purpose on condition of anonymity.

And since many defense experts have voiced their opposition to Trump, the president has a limited pool of candidates to draw upon, said the former official, who added he does not think the president is placing loyalty above competence when appointing civilians to the Pentagon.

The official said Cutrone’s position as deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs should not include vetting Pentagon officials, which is normally handled by the White House liaison office.
Moreover, Cutrone’s job should keep him so busy that he is not expected to have time to focus on personnel decisions, the official said.
Still, the official said he does have concerns about Tata over his reported extramarital affairs because it raises questions about his honesty.

Meanwhile, the vice president’s spokesman Devin O’Malley disputed how Foreign Policy characterized Cutrone’s role at the Pentagon.
“Michael Cutrone has decades’ worth of foreign policy and national security experience that will be an asset to Secretary Esper as he continues to build on President Trump’s success of rebuilding the military, combating terror, and protecting America’s interests abroad,” O’Malley told Task & Purpose.

I disagree with the anonymous official above: Trump is clearly sacrificing quality for loyalty. I just think that’s SOP.

The difference here is one of magnitude. Partly, that’s a function of Trump’s mindset. Mostly, though, it comes down to the point made in that last excerpt: there’s a rather small pool of otherwise qualified people willing to work for Trump is a key one that was noted early on. That has magnified, as Trump has become ever-more-toxic in elite circles. And, indeed, few of the honorable people have been willing to serve escaped the Trump administration with their reputations intact.

*I am a government employee and, indeed, a Defense Department employee, and have made my views on President Trump and all manner of things political a matter of public record here and elsewhere for most of my adult life. But I’m not a traditional civil servant charged with executing administration policy but a college professor with academic freedom.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Yup one of the first jobs of President Biden will be to drain the swamp. If indeed he is targeting civil servants, not just political appointees that oppose him, it will get messy as civil servants have certain protections under the civil service act. That is why pesky ones get reassigned rather than fired. See the Malek Manual.

  2. Modulo Myself says:

    If Biden had real balls he would double-down on Trump’s power plays and promise to go after the Federalist Society. It’s basically the judicial system as we know it. Take a look at its funding, who’s financing the scummy careers of a bunch of closeted crypto-Francoists, what debts were paid-off, etc. These people are like Trump but without any of support. He can do what he wants to them.

  3. Turgid Jacobian says:

    Jake Sullivan became a DCS and DPP after getting an MPhil on a Rhodes, working as director of a premier IR journal, getting a law degree, clerking for a SCOTUS justice, practicing law, and serving as counsel to a Senator. I don’t think your characterization of zero relevant experience is fair.

    Nor is it evenhanded: Tata hasn’t worked Defense Policy issues in any meaningful sense since he retired, *if* he could have been considered to work them when he served. Administering school districts and a State DoT are weighty, but only related to the administration aspects of USD(P) roles, not the fundamental subject matter.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Frankly, if you’re a civil servant,* your political views should be largely unknown.

    They can say absolutely zip about politics and still get fired. Do they follow the law? Or do they follow trump? Time and again we have seen people fired/demoted by the trump admin for following the law. They are the dreaded deep state actors.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Turgid Jacobian: Oh, Jake Sullivan is a brilliant fellow. But none of those experiences made him an expert in diplomacy. He was nowhere near as well-qualified as Anne-Marie Slaughter, his immediate predecessor, who’s pretty damned bright in her own right. And, certainly, he’s no George Kennan, the first holder of that office.

    And, again, I wouldn’t have chosen Tata. But a career as an Army officer, including being a graduate of the elite SAMS program, means he’s a highly-qualified defense planner. He’s infinitely more qualified by CV than Sullivan was.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Trump can’t easily fire career officials. He can remove them from appointed posts or those seconded from their agencies, but they’re free to go back to work in their agencies at the same grade.

    And, again, I think there’s a lot to abhor about what Trump has said and done vis-a-vis the “Deep State.” Ditto treating those seconded to service in the Obama White House or NSC as through they were political operatives rather than loyal public servants. I’ve condemned that repeatedly.

    It’s just that this particular report amounts to something a whole lot less than a “purge” or, indeed, particularly unusual.

  7. Turgid Jacobian says:

    @James Joyner: DPP isn’t primarily a diplomacy post. As you well know, diplomacy is just one of the levers of state power that need to be coordinated by DoS, and the actual practice of diplomacy is not a responsibility of DPP.

    And there’s no reasonable way to conclude that being a grad of SAMS would be good preparation to no-kidding conducting DoD-level IR. I will gladly concede that he’s likely to be well equipped in theory to preside over OPLAN review for SECDEF approval. That’s another of the functions (aside from the previously acknowledged ability to manage largish formations) that seems another positive for Tata.

    I also note that you don’t acknowledge (beyond the Fox hackishness) his other square negatives.

  8. Turgid Jacobian says:

    The reason I say the above about Tata’s preparation from SAMS is that I’ve known too many grads in whom the blind spots to Department-level *policy* and Government-level *politics* (with a small “p”) have been truly profound.

    Sure, he could be the exception. But I’ve seen his TV hits.

  9. DrDaveT says:

    But I’m not a traditional civil servant charged with executing administration policy […]

    For the most part, executing administration policy is not (and should not be) the first duty of civil servants. Administering the law, and the regulations that refine the law, is what they do. Execution of administration policy is supposed to live within those bounds. If administration policy is to ignore or flout the law, civil servants not only have no responsibility to go along with that, they have a legal obligation to fight it.

  10. Turgid Jacobian says:

    I will admit that there’s nothing on paper that would make me think Ben Rhodes was the dude to hire at the NSC for a substantive position. I understand that he was primarily a comms guy to begin with, and worked his way into leadership confidence, which is a bit less irritating.

  11. DeD says:

    Am I the only one who sees this as Trump preparing to contest the election when he loses, and refuse to leave the White House? Is he replacing generals with loyalists who will move military units in place to quell the populace? Remember the movie “The Enemy Within?” Am I being paranoid?

  12. Jax says:

    @DeD: You’re not the only one being paranoid. His base will eat it up, they ALSO do not know the difference between “applications” for mailed ballots, and actual mailed ballots.

    I bet the guy he just put in charge of the USPS is sweating around the neck right now.

  13. DeD says:

    Maybe I’m being paranoid:

    I seriously hope I’m being paranoid.

  14. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @DeD: Yes, it doesn’t work that way. Every military officer is sworn to uphold the Constitution which calls for the courts to settle election disputes…so there is that. Plus you have the problem of which active units would be loyal to Trump…THEN you have the additional wild card of which Guard and Reserve units..who are controlled by State Governors are Loyal to Trump and which are not. BTW.. most of this nations Combat power is in the Reserves and Guard–not the Actuve Duty.

    There are separation of powers in combat capability that would make a Coup all but but impossible to an imbecile like Trump

  15. DeD says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    You mean the Constitution that Trump and Mitch McConnell & Co. keep sh*****g on? Or is it the courts that Trump and Mitch are packing with unqualified mutts to which you refer? And do you mean the State governors who allow armed neo-Nazis to storm their capitals without so much as a you-better-stand-the-fk-down, or the State governors kissing Trump’s ass and capitulating to his every moronic whim?
    I was active duty and reserve Navy. I disagree with your assertion about the Reserves vs Active Duty, but I could be wrong. Troops are going to follow the lawful orders of their superiors. If Trump stacks DoD leadership with sycophants, the question will be whether or not their orders to continue supporting a voted-out Trump are considered lawful to the rank-and-file.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @Turgid Jacobian:

    I also note that you don’t acknowledge (beyond the Fox hackishness) his other square negatives.

    I’m only tangentially aware of Tata’s existence. I’m merely pushing back at the notion that he’s wildly unqualified for the job compared to nominees for similar posts in recent administrations.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Sure. But the higher up the food chain one goes—and we’re talking senior SES level people here, not GS-12s—that becomes less true. Presidents are entitled to have their legal orders carried out and to get senior bureaucrats trying to slow-walk them out of the way. They can’t be fired for noncompliance unless they’re breaking the law. But they can surely be removed from policy roles.

  18. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @DeD: So you think the New York & California Guard and Reserve are going to fall in on Trumps call to arms? Not to mention the Guard and Reserve units immediately surrounding DC? The question of whether Trump can use the courts to stay in off after being voted out is a different animal than using soldiers to defy the courts.

    I also disagree with your characterization of military people. We we are not lemmings. There is a BIG difference between a lawful order you disagree with and an illegal order. Sometimes there is grey area but, “Hey I lost but Democrats cheated so let’s take the country over”…isnt going to meet that threshold.

    Our Military is at its lowest readiness levels in decades. Some of that is the wars and a bigger part is the economy. We built DOD up in recessions and let it wither in Boom economies. Make no mistake, the Reserve force is making up a large part of the forces we are using for our current commitments. The active forces simply dont have the manning to do it.

    Since you were Reserve you know that the President doesn’t have to do a full reserve mobilization to get Reservists overseas. Small unit mobilization barely makes the local news. We’ve been activating small units and taking on Reserve volunteers for specialties the Active Duty didn’t have available for years now. They do a tour or two and go back to civilian life.

    Should Trump lose in November…there is no military option to remain. There are many black, brown,and Never Trumpers in the ranks. They won’t blindly follow the orders of their Trumpie commander. If anything, he or she would get a “code red”

  19. DeD says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    I defer to your current experience since it’s been 20 years since my last reservist tour. No, I don’t think military members are lemmings. I suppose I’m extrapolating the current civilian culture of challenging lawful authority to the military, seeing as, traditionally, mil members favor Republicans. I know I did when I was in.

    I hope your instincts about this are correct, though. I wouldn’t put it past Trump to stack senior DoD with sycophants who’d be willing to move units into key blue states. You say that there are significant numbers of non-Trump members who, presumably, wouldn’t follow any orders that would see Trump remain in office if he loses the election. What would that look like exactly? How would military unit cohesion remain intact if the unit was split pro and against? Would there be a wider “civil war” in the forces?

    The fact that these questions are even contemplated is proof that Trump is unfit to lead this country.

  20. Jim Brown 32 says:

    There are simply too many layers that would have to support Trump for this to be viable or feasible. He would have to be building direct command and control of the forces needed to pull this off. He doesn’t even know how the Command and Control structure works much less be diligent enough to put in the work to flatten it and bring it under his control.

    Trump can’t even do commercial supply chain. How is he going to pull together military logistic to close off DC from an inevitable counter strike from non Loyal Commanders who I assure you outnumber Commanders who would destroy America to bet on 70+ year old gameshow host? How does Trumps Forces get paid? How do they maneuver though blue states without being challenged by state Guard units? Any domestic mission by a non-Guard is illegal regardless of reason.

    This guy has spent 4 years humiliating and impugning the credibility of the very institutions he’d need in such a scenario. Its completely unrealistic to think that the people that are invested in the success of DOD are going to break the law for some tin pot political appointees that couldn’t get a job in DOD on any professional merit.

    There was always a natural instinct in the Department to dislike but tolerate appointees but ALWAYS obey the law. There is no law or ruling that makes military action on domestic soil legal. It would be and illegal order buy a mostly unpopular president.