The Trump administration appears determined to go out with both a bang and a whimper. The whimper is an easily predicted and plainly ludicrous contesting of ballot tabulations in states where there is no reason to suspect fraud. The bang is the ouster of a cavalcade of top national-security officials: Mark Esper, the secretary of defense; James Anderson, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy; Joseph Kernan, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Congressional leaders are reportedly pleading to save the job of CIA Director Gina Haspel. The director of the National Security Agency, Paul Nakasone, who just scored a huge victory in protecting the integrity of American elections, has evidently also fallen from President Donald Trump’s grace by arguing against releasing highly classified documents that would help adversaries understand how the U.S. managed to prevent foreign interference in the 2020 vote.
The replacements for the defenestrated national-security leaders are not cause for consolation, either. Christopher Miller, now the acting secretary of defense, was just 10 months ago appointed to a job four echelons lower in the hierarchy. His new chief of staff, Kash Patel, was involved in Representative Devin Nunes’s scurrilous release of arguably classified information. The newly appointed NSA general counsel, Michael Ellis, is also a product of Nunes’s staff. None of these people would have been confirmable for the positions that President Trump put them in if their nominations had come before the Senate for consideration. In fact, the new acting undersecretary of defense for policy, Anthony Tata, was supposed to come before the Senate but saw his nomination pulled because he had shown bigotry and unsound judgment.
These changes, which come as the president is refusing to acknowledge his defeat last week, probably don’t foreshadow the kind of elaborate plots that Trump’s critics fear. If anything, the personnel changes are remarkable for the small-mindedness and garden-variety spite they demonstrate.
Serious people in defense and intelligence circles are worried, including Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst now serving in Congress, and retired General Barry McCaffrey. Four theories about what the administration is doing are circulating. The first, easily dismissed, is that the president is organizing security forces to support his remaining in power. Esper had publicly opposed the president’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act during this summer’s protests, and had told people he would remain in his job to ensure that the military was shielded from politically motivated uses during and after the election. In firing the policy and intelligence chiefs, and circumventing the Senate-confirmed deputy secretary of defense, David Norquist, to choose Miller as the acting secretary, Trump now has installed a more fully compliant civilian leadership of the defense establishment.
But the Pentagon’s civilian leadership was never the most immovable bulwark against politicizing the military. That honor belongs to the military itself. It’s impossible to imagine the Joint Chiefs of Staff consenting to violate their oath to uphold the Constitution. Their chairman, General Mark Milley, recorded an abject apology for even the appearance of doing so in the summer, after he accompanied Trump across Lafayette Square for a photo op. That incident served as a warning to top brass: The White House wouldn’t hesitate to compromise the trust that the American people have placed in the professional military. Senior officers have studied the statutes and thought carefully about how to keep their feet out of a wolf trap that would sully their honor and despoil their relationship with the American public.
The second and most alarming possibility is a preemptive military strike on Iran. Trump will not want to leave office, proponents of this theory maintain, without having more to show for his “maximum pressure” campaign to force Tehran to give up its nuclear-weapons program. As a casus belli, the Trump administration might use Iran’s uranium enrichment, which, according to United Nations officials, has just reached 12 times what the country was permitted in Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal. The recent firings ostensibly clear the Pentagon of responsible officials who would stop Trump from starting a war that he could leave burning for the successor he resents. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Europe and the Middle East folds into this theory as diplomatic preparation for war.
But if a strike were planned, America’s European and Middle Eastern allies would quickly leak the subject to the press in order to prevent its occurrence. A sudden American attack with no provocation by Iran, and without any immediate threat to the United States or its allies, would be an egregious violation of American treaty commitments, including the UN charter. Given Iran’s retaliatory attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq earlier this year, after Trump’s targeting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani, the American military would want time to heighten its alert and protect U.S. forces and facilities throughout the Middle East. And that would require assistance from U.S. allies who opposed an attack on Iran even after its strike on Saudi Arabia last year.
Moreover, the dismissed senior Defense Department civilians likely did not pose any significant barrier to carrying out an attack on Iran. They may have argued against it, but they made their peace with other disturbing Trump policies, such as taking funds appropriated by Congress for other purposes and using them to pay for construction of the border wall—something Congress explicitly enjoined the administration against and that is likely unconstitutional. Esper moved the money and defended the decision as one the president had the authority to make.
The third possibility is that the president is putting in place factotums who will have authority over documents possibly linking him to Russia’s 2016 election interference. For Trump, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reminds us, that interference “remains ground zero—the moment when his political problems began.” The cloud of intrigue—involving numerous figures in Russia and Ukraine—that has been swirling around Trump since his 2016 election eventually led to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and Trump’s impeachment. In one scenario now being contemplated in national-security circles, the Trump loyalists newly installed in sensitive positions will protect the departing president by preventing access to records that might implicate him in various allegations of illegality, politicized intelligence, and foreign manipulation.
The problem with this theory is the unlikelihood of ever fully destroying or suppressing records. Somewhere, someone has misfiled a document or the accomplices have missed a server backup that will turn up later, or someone who believes that he or she is doing the country a service has stashed a copy with a journalist or congressional staffer. A variant of the theory is that the president wants John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, to release a trove of raw-intelligence documents (perhaps artfully redacted) to bolster the president’s claims that he is the victim of malfeasance by his political enemies and the so-called deep state. Such a release of sensitive files would be deeply injurious to our country’s national security, but how the Pentagon firings relate to that scenario is not at all clear.
The last, and most likely, explanation for the Pentagon firings is the president’s petty vengefulness. Rabid at losing the election, frothing at the mouth to settle scores against those he believes wronged him, he’s lashing out at all perceived enemies in the waning days of his administration. Hanlon’s razor is a managerial maxim that warns against attributing to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. And although Trump-administration policies and personnel choices have certainly been harmful, they have seldom been purposeful. Some of Trump’s advocates and his opponents think he’s a strategic genius, playing three-dimensional chess, a game so sophisticated that we mere amateurs can’t discern the patterns of play until we’re checkmated. But the administration’s decisions don’t bear out either the worry or the praise. Mostly, Trump has said out loud and repeatedly what he wants: to be rid of anyone who says anything to him but yes.
A responsible commander in chief would be underscoring the stability and strength of U.S. defense and intelligence agencies during the presidential transition. But that’s not the commander in chief we have. And what he seems to want to do now is put his most loyal acolytes into résumé-enhancing positions while he fires parting shots over his shoulder to wound those who opposed him.