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Three Trump loyalists appointed to top Pentagon jobs as Defence Secretary fired

Military personnel changes have fuelled concerns of a push against figures seen as not loyal enough to Trump.

President Donald Trump listens to Defense Secretary Mark Esper
President Donald Trump listens to Defense Secretary Mark Esper
Image: Pool/ABACA via PA Images

A DAY AFTER Donald Trump fired Defence Secretary Mark Esper, three staunch loyalists to the president have been appointed to senior defence jobs.

Among them was a former Fox News commentator who failed to pass Senate confirmation because of offensive remarks he made, including about Islam.

The abrupt changes sent reverberations through the Pentagon as nervous civilian and military personnel waited for more developments. And they fuelled worries of a wider effort to drum out anyone considered not loyal enough to Trump.

The unease was palpable inside the building throughout the day over concerns about what the Trump administration may do in the months before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, and whether there will be a greater effort to politicise the historically apolitical military.

While radical policy shifts seem unlikely before the 20 January inauguration, the changes could further damage prospects for a smooth transition already hampered by Trump’s refusal to concede his election loss.

James Anderson, who had been acting under-secretary for policy, resigned yesterday morning and was quickly replaced by Anthony Tata, a retired army one-star general.

A short time later, Joseph Kernan, a retired navy vice-admiral, stepped down as under-secretary for intelligence, hastening what had been an already planned post-election departure. Kernan was replaced by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who becomes acting under-secretary for intelligence.

The departures came on Christopher Miller’s second day on the job as defence chief. Miller also brought in his own chief of staff in Kash Patel, who, like Cohen-Watnick, is considered staunchly loyal to Trump and previously worked at the National Security Council.

Patel was among the small group of aides who travelled with Trump extensively during the final stretch of the campaign. He is also a former prosecutor in the national security division of the Department of Justice and former staff member on the House Intelligence Committee. In that post, he was a top aide to Republican representative Devin Nunes, leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Patel was linked in media accounts to efforts to discredit the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

This is Trump’s second attempt to secure the policy job for Tata, who has been a regular commentator on Fox News.

Earlier this year, Trump appointed Tata to the post, but the Senate cancelled a hearing on the nomination when it became clear it would be difficult if not impossible to have him confirmed. Tata withdrew his name from consideration for the job, which is the third-highest position in the department, and Trump then appointed him to serve in the job of deputy under-secretary.

According to media reports, Tata posted tweets in 2018 calling Islam the “most oppressive violent religion I know of,” and called former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” and referred to him as Muslim. The tweets were later taken down.

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At the time of the Senate hearing, Democratic representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Trump must not prioritise loyalty over competence and install someone in a job if the “appointee cannot gain the support of the Senate, as is clearly the case with Tata”.

While the personnel changes added to the tumult in the wake of Esper’s departure, it’s not clear how much impact they could have on the massive Pentagon bureaucracy. The department is anchored by the tenet of civilian control of the military, and much of its day-to-day activities are conducted by career policy experts and military leaders who adhere to a strict chain of command.

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