Esper Fired; Trump Keeps Fighting; Election-Crimes Chief Quits; SDF to Biden: ‘Send More Troops’; Caucasus Cease-Fire; and a Bit More…
Trump fires Esper, continues to challenge election results. Mark Esper became the third defense secretary fired by President Trump, who announced the “termination” via tweet early Monday afternoon. Esper’s replacement as the second man in the U.S. military’s chain of command will be Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, a retired Army officer who was leading the National Counterterrorism Center. Read Defense One’s report, here.
“Miller’s guidance to senior Pentagon staff is there is no change to the mission, no significant changes at this time,” Politico’s Lara Seligman reported, citing an unnamed senior defense official.
And read Esper’s last interview in office, in which he confronts the nickname “Yesper,” by Military Times’ Meghann Myers.
Trump gave no reason why he fired Esper with just 72 days left in his presidency, though rumors have swirled for months about POTUS’ disaffection for his military chief. On June 1, the SecDef spoke of wanting to “dominate the battlespace” of public streets filled with protestors, then accompanied the president through a park cleared with tear gas for a photo op. Two days later, Esper declared that he was against putting troops in U.S. streets, a statement that Trump reportedly took as disloyalty.
Stunned and angry reactions poured in. Wrote Washington Post’s David Ignatius, whose father served as Navy secretary: “For a Pentagon that thrives on orderly transition,” the firing was “a slap in the face. It stunned the military leadership at a time when they were craving stability.”
“Pretty reckless,” former SecDef Robert Gates told Ignatius.
Elsewhere in the national-security community:
- JUST IN: Politico: “The Pentagon’s acting policy chief resigned on Tuesday after falling out of favor with the White House, raising fears of a post-election purge at the Defense Department. The departure of James Anderson, the acting undersecretary of defense for policy, potentially paves the way for Anthony Tata, President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee for the top policy job who was pulled from contention due to Islamophobic tweets, to take over the policy shop.” Read, here.
- New NSA general counsel to be appointed, the Post reports. It’s going to be Michael Ellis, who as chief counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., “publicity for his involvement in a questionable episode involving Nunes, who was given access at the White House to intelligence files that Nunes believed would buttress his baseless claims of the Obama administration spying on Trump Tower.” Ellis later proposed hiding a memorandum documenting Trump’s attempt to pressure the Ukrainian president into a politically motivated investigation, according to testimony by Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. The appointment would make Ellis a civil servant and difficult to remove from government employment, the Post notes.
- Federal climate-change leader removed. “Michael Kuperberg was told he would no longer oversee the National Climate Assessment. The job is expected to go to a climate-change skeptic, according to people familiar with the changes,” the NYT reported Monday.
- ICYMI: The head of the National Nuclear Security Administration resigned suddenly on Friday. Defense News has the story, here.
- And: USAID leaders tells staff not to help the Biden transition team until the GSA approves, the Post reported. The top political appointee at the U.S. Agency for International Development told officials during a phone call Monday that “three Trump loyalists are being elevated to top positions at the agency, even as the administration enters its waning days, according to the officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on internal discussions.”
From Defense One
Trump Fires Esper, Taps NCTC Director to be Acting SecDef // Marcus Weisgerber, Bradley Peniston, and Katie Bo Williams: Christopher Miller becomes Trump’s fourth acting defense secretary just 72 days before Inauguration Day.
The Danger of Treating National Security Like a Political Sideshow / Kevin Baron: This was a dangerous day.
Pentagon’s ‘AI Factory’ Looks To Distribute Tools Across DOD // Mila Jasper, Nextgov: The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center will begin rolling out its Joint Common Foundation next year, its new director says.
What Today’s Generals Could Learn from George Washington’s Evolution // Thomas E. Ricks: In his military thinking early on, Washington failed to see the big strategic picture. But the 44-year old war commander “could observe, reflect, and adjust more than most senior commanders.
Biden Shouldn’t Toss All of Trump’s Foreign Policies // Charles V. Peña: From ending forever wars to pressing allies to shoulder more of their defense loads, the next president should pursue at least some of his predecessor’s goals.
Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief from Bradley Peniston and Kevin Baron. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. Happy 245th birthday, U.S. Marine Corps!
AG Barr upends 40-year-old policy against investigating ballot fraud before an election is certified. AP: “Attorney General William Barr has authorized federal prosecutors across the U.S. to pursue ‘substantial allegations’ of voting irregularities, if they exist, before the 2020 presidential election is certified, despite little evidence of fraud.”
DOJ election-crimes chief quits in protest. Richard Pilger, who directs the Justice Department’s election-crimes branch, resigned in protest of Barr’s new policy on Monday, NPR reported.
Barr’s action comes amid Trump’s broad efforts to fight the election results with lawsuits and assertions of fraud. NPR: “Trump’s campaign has spent much of the past week in court with little success, and without presenting anything close to evidence that points to a fraudulent result.”
In Nevada, for example, Trump officials challenged some 3,000 ballots that they said represented voters from other states; actually, they were properly cast by military members who had been transferred. (Wall Street Journal)
Trump himself continued to mislead about purported problems. NPR debunks Monday tweets about four states where Democrat Joe Biden narrowly edged out the incumbent.
No evidence yet of significant problems, AP reports: “Biden holds a sizable lead in multiple battleground states and there has been no indication of enough improperly counted or illegally cast votes that would shift the outcome. In fact, election officials from both political parties have publicly stated the election went well, though there have been minor issues that are typical in elections, including voting machines breaking and ballots that were miscast and lost.”
The election was free and fair, say two groups of international election observers invited by the Trump administration. Reports by the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe generally praised the election, and criticized Trump and Republicans for failing to acknowledge its results. “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions,” Michael Georg Link, leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission, said last week. (WSJ)
McConnell backs Trump foot-dragging, slams Russia election interference “hysteria.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky., fresh off his reelection victory, returned to the floor on Tuesday and delivered a very McConnell-esque speech. First he set ’em up, boasting that the 2020 election was “free from meaningful foreign interference.” The measures put into place since 2016 worked and, he argued, “it slams the door on the embarrassing, irresponsible rhetoric that some Washington Democrats spent four years broadcasting.” Then, he knocked ’em down: “Well, the people who pushed this hysteria could not have more egg on their face than they do now.”
So Democrats should “have no reason to fear extra scrutiny” of the vote count, if nothing untoward occurred, Leader McConnell said, giving air for the Trump campaign’s unproven conspiracy allegations to breathe.
More NATO leaders have congratulated Biden than Senate Republicans. “Every NATO head of state has congratulated Biden except Turkey’s dictator Erdogan and the leaders of Slovenia (Melania Trump’s original home country). That’s 27 treaty allies,” noted Baron, on Monday.
China and Russia having a field day with Trump chaos. “In Russia, it was clear that the Kremlin saw the tumult in Washington as an opportunity to criticize the United States rather than to try to improve ties,” reports the NYT. In a very Russian insult, state TV host Dmitri Kiselyov said, “the election showed the United States to be ‘not a country but a huge, chaotic communal apartment, with a criminal flair.’”
Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush: “Through their active support or guilty silence, most elected Republicans are encouraging their fellow citizens to believe that America’s democratic system is fundamentally corrupt,” Gerson wrote in his Monday column. “No agent of China or Russia could do a better job of sabotage. Republicans are fostering cynicism about the constitutional order on a massive scale. They are stumbling toward sedition.”
Ceasefire in the Caucasus as Armenia accepts Moscow-brokered deal, the NYT reports: “Azerbaijan won many of the concessions it has sought for decades in negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh separatist region.”Bigger picture: “But the agreement Monday suggested a more permanent, sweeping redrawing of the security map of the southern Caucasus, a volatile region wedged between Turkey, Russia and Iran. The settlement sealed a role in the region for an increasingly assertive Turkey, which backed Azerbaijan in the war that began in September.” Read on, here.
Biden unveils COVID task force. “The list includes Rick Bright, the former head of the vaccine-development agency BARDA ousted by the Trump administration in April; Atul Gawande, the surgeon, writer, and recently departed CEO of Haven, the joint JP Morgan Chase-Berkshire Hathaway-Amazon health care venture; and Luciana Borio, a former Food and Drug Administration official and biodefense specialist,” STAT News reports.
Who should get the vaccine when it arrives? Writing in WIRED, Christopher Cox argues that the logical people to get vaccinated should be society’s “connectors,” the gregarious friends and co-workers who are key to a dynamic society in normal times but who can become super-spreaders in a pandemic. Read that, here.
Who will take it? Only 61 percent of respondents to a STAT News poll said they’d take a vaccine that reduced their risk by half. Nearly two-thirds said they would take one that reduced their risk by 75 percent. “The responses appear to underscore lingering concerns about a Covid-19 vaccine” including “concerns from public health experts that reluctance among the public to get vaccinated would hamper efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19.” Read on, here.
COVID’s U.S. toll: “Over the past week, there has been an average of 116,448 cases per day, an increase of 64 percent from the average two weeks earlier,” the NYT tracker reports. “As of Tuesday morning, more than 10,191,200 people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 238,700 have died.”
SDF commander to Biden: “Send more troops.” The Syrian Democratic Forces leader Mazlum Kobane welcomed Biden and old Obama-era hands back into the fold, in an interview with Al-Monitor. “We are optimistic about the new administration,” he said. “They are in command of the situation here. They grasp its complexities. I believe they will pursue a more realistic policy.” BLUF: “The United States needs to send more troops here.”
Amb. Jim Jeffery is retiring — again. Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the top Syria and counter-ISIS war envoy he pulled back into service in 2018 is leaving. “Together, his Army and Foreign Service careers span 45 years of exceptional service. Indeed, Ambassador Jeffrey epitomizes the very best of our diplomatic corps. Jim is an American patriot of the highest order.”
A force of words, Jeffrey was known for straight-talk through a hard Boston accent. Last year he undiplomatically blasted the 2020 presidential candidates complaining about “endless wars,” saying it “shows total ignorance of what’s going on in the world today.”
Replacements: Joel Rayburn, Jeffery’s deputy, will take over the Syria portfolio. Amb. Nathan Sales, State’s coordinator for counterterrorism, will become the new special envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS. (Reminder: ISIS is not defeated.)
Lastly today: America the Beautiful just became more accessible for U.S. military veterans and Gold Star families. “The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced U.S. military veterans and Gold Star families will be granted a lifetime of free access to national parks, wildlife refuges and other federal lands managed by the Department of the Interior,” reports NPR. Bonus: This Wednesday, the parks will be free for everyone, in honor of Veterans Day.