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Questions swirl at Pentagon after wave of departures

Is it a coup, a push to withdraw from Afghanistan or just some petty score settling?

That’s the question that has swirled in defense circles amid a wave of firings and resignations at the Pentagon that saw the ouster of the Defense secretary and installation of several aides seen as loyalists of President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE.

The shakeup has led Trump’s critics to sound the alarm, with Democratic lawmakers and others fearful of what the Pentagon’s new leadership will try to push through in Trump’s remaining two months in office.

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But others say the Pentagon’s vast bureaucracy and the military chain-of-command make any radical changes in less than 70 days difficult.

“All this speculation about, ‘Is Trump going to do something with the Insurrection Act, is he going to invade some country?’ No,” said Mark Cancian, a former defense official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While “it’s not impossible that he would try some precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Cancian said, the military “could slow roll him” on anything he directs.

In a speech on Veterans Day, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Staff Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyIsraeli military instructed to prepare for Trump strike on Iran: report Top Pentagon official tests positive for COVID-19 Khamenei adviser says US could spark 'full-fledged war' with strike MORE touted the apolitical nature of the military. It’s a message he’s delivered frequently in recent months, but one that received renewed attention amid the upheaval.

“We are unique among militaries,” Milley said at a ceremony marking the opening of the National Museum of the United States Army. “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.

“And every soldier that is represented in this museum, every sailor, airman, Marine, Coast Guardsman, each of us will protect and defend that document regardless of personal price," he continued.

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The Pentagon purge started Monday with Trump’s firing of Mark EsperMark EsperActing Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia Overnight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition MORE as Defense secretary. Esper had been seen as a dead man walking for months, but his firing two days after Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE was declared the winner of the presidential election still stunned Washington.

In a series of tweets after Esper’s firing, Rep. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinBickering Democrats return with divisions Questions swirl at Pentagon after wave of departures Overnight Defense: Another Defense official resigns | Pentagon chief says military 'remains strong' despite purge | Top contender for Biden DOD secretary would be historic pick MORE (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst and Pentagon official, raised three possibilities for firing a Defense secretary during the presidential transition: wrongdoing or incompetence from Esper, “vindictiveness” or “because the President wants to take actions that he believes his Secretary of Defense would refuse to take, which would be alarming.”

“Whatever the reason, casting aside a Secretary of Defense during the volatile days of transition seems to neglect the President’s most important duty: to protect our national security,” Slotkin tweeted.

In Esper’s place, Trump appointed Christopher Miller, who had been serving as director of the National Counterterrorism Center since August, to be the acting Defense secretary. Miller’s lack of experience leading a large agency like the Pentagon raised some concern, but he was generally seen as an inoffensive pick. 

But Esper’s departure was quickly followed by the Pentagon's top policy official James Anderson, the agency's top intelligence official Joseph Kernan and Esper's chief of staff Jen Stewart. All three submitted letters announcing their resignations Tuesday.

The latest resignation came on Thursday with deputy chief of staff Alexis Ross stepping down.

Concern about Trump’s plans spiked when the Pentagon announced who was replacing Anderson, Kernan and Stewart.

Stepping into the policy job on an acting basis is Anthony Tata, a retired Army brigadier general most known for his frequent guest appearances on Fox News. Tata was previously nominated for the job, but withdrew from consideration in July after past inflammatory and racist tweets resurfaced and the Senate Armed Services Committee scrapped his confirmation hearing.

In 2018 tweets, for example, Tata called former President Obama a “terrorist leader” and said Islam is the “most oppressive violent religion I know of.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), an Armed Services Committee member, said the Tata appointment shows Trump’s “personal vendettas and temper tantrums supersede our national security.”

“Elevating Anthony Tata—who was too extreme to get a Senate hearing—to top policy maker at the Defense Department is profoundly destabilizing during this transition period,” Blumenthal tweeted.

Filling the intelligence job on an acting basis is Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who entered the administration as an aide of former national security adviser Michael Flynn and has bounced around to several other positions in the administration. He is perhaps most known for being caught up in the 2017 controversy over Trump’s unfounded claim that Obama had him wiretapped.

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Miller’s new chief of staff is Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesOvernight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition Sunday shows preview: Biden transition, COVID-19 spike in spotlight MORE (R-Calif.) who rose to prominence helping House Republicans attempt to discredit the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

A former official from Trump’s 2016 transition blasted what they described as “score settling by inexperienced MAGA warriors in the White House,” calling it “downright dangerous in the national security community.”

“Transitions of power are delicate in any country and hostile nations have often seen transitions as a good time to take a risk to further their own advantage,” the former official told The Hill. “Decapitating the civilian leadership of the most powerful military on earth at its most vulnerable hour is inviting a crisis that could well get people killed.”

A Biden official was also critical.

“Of course it's of concern to see the upheaval, it should be of concern to anybody because there shouldn't be a politicization of the military,” Biden transition adviser Jen Psaki told reporters on a call Friday.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon also announced that retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, another frequent Fox News guest, was hired as a senior adviser to Miller.

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Macgregor was nominated to be U.S. ambassador to Germany earlier this year, but his nomination floundered after CNN resurfaced a slew of inflammatory comments. In 2019, he called Muslim refugees in Germany “unwanted Muslim invaders,” and in 2012, argued for imposing martial law at the U.S.-Mexico border by saying to “shoot people” if necessary.

Macgregor’s hire was seen as a sign that the shakeup is intended to push through an Afghanistan withdrawal, as he has frequently advocated a quick pull out there. Trump is pushing for a full withdrawal before the end of the year, but his national security adviser has said a drawdown will leave 2,500 troops there by early 2021 and the U.S. military has argued against going below the 4,500 troops there now.

“I am very pleased @realDonaldTrump asked my friend Col. Doug Macgregor to help quickly end the war in Afghanistan,” tweeted Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Overnight Defense: Formal negotiations inch forward on defense bill with Confederate base name language | Senators look to block B UAE arms sales | Trump administration imposes Iran sanctions over human rights abuses MORE (R-Ky.), an anti-interventionist libertarian. “This and other picks for Pentagon are about getting the right people who will finally help him stop our endless wars.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeHouse Democrats back slower timeline for changing Confederate base names Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee Overnight Defense: Trump orders troop drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq | Key Republicans call Trump plan a 'mistake' MORE (R-Okla.), a close Trump ally, expressed some concern about the turnover at the Pentagon, but said he believes the bloodletting is over.

“I've been a little concerned about it. I feel comfortable now that I think it’s come to an end,” Inhofe told reporters at the Capitol, his office confirmed to The Hill. “I think it has come to an end.”

“I don’t like last-minute changes, unless I know something about it,” he added. “I’d like to know in advance, and I’d like to know the reason and all that.”

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One think tank expert told The Hill that those left at the Pentagon are laying low until Trump is out of office. They pointed to a number of recently canceled events where senior defense officials were expected to speak.

“Every senior official in the Department of Defense is scared to death that they’re going to say something in public that the president will see and take vengeance for,” they said. “It’s not just one service or one group. Everybody has decided they’re not going to say anything, they’re not going to do public appearances ... maybe even up until the inauguration. You’re going to see more people leave and a lot of caution by the people who stay.”

Despite the shakeup, Miller on Friday sought to portray a sense of tranquility at the Pentagon.

He said he already spoke to defense ministers in several allied countries, as well as congressional leaders in both parties, and planned to speak to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg later Friday. 

“I want to assure the American public and our allies and partners that the Department of Defense remains strong and continues its vital work of protecting our homeland, our people and our interests around the world,” Miller said.

Miller did not acknowledge questions from reporters about Afghanistan and adherence to the Constitution.