Senior Policy and Intelligence Civilians Resign in Pentagon Staffing Shakeup

November 11, 2020 Updated: November 11, 2020

In a personnel shakeup in the Defense Department, the Pentagon confirmed on Nov. 10 the resignations of three senior civilian officials a day after President Donald Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The resignations came from Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security Joseph Kernan, Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson, and Esper’s chief of staff Jen Stewart, according to a Pentagon statement.

On Nov. 9, Trump designated National Counterterrorism Center Director Chris Miller as the acting secretary of defense. Miller, in a statement, thanked the departing officials for their service.

“I want to thank Dr. Anderson, Admiral Kernan, and Jen Stewart for their service to the nation and the Department. Over their careers each has contributed greatly to the national defense and the future of the Department of Defense. We wish them the best in their next endeavors,” Miller stated.

Replacements for the resigning officials have been announced, with Anthony Tata assuming the responsibilities of the undersecretary of defense for policy, Ezra Cohen-Watnick performing the duties of undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, and Kash Patel taking over as Miller’s chief of staff.

Anderson, in his resignation letter, said that “it is clear that despite profound national security and defense challenges, America is more secure than it was four years ago” and touted policy efforts implemented during his tenure that include modernization of America’s nuclear deterrent, enhanced civilian oversight of war plans, and moves “aimed at strengthening our relations with allies and partners.”

Trump announced Esper’s termination on Twitter.

“I am pleased to announce that Christopher C. Miller, the highly respected Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (unanimously confirmed by the Senate), will be Acting Secretary of Defense, effective immediately,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post. “Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”

Mark Esper
Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington on March 2, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP Photo)

Esper, in a final memo to Pentagon staff, called his tenure “the honor and privilege of a lifetime” and echoed some of the milestones highlighted in Anderson’s resignation letter.

“Together, we have made solid progress implementing the National Defense Strategy by modernizing the force, improving its readiness, strengthening ties with allies and partners, and reforming the Department to make it more efficient. We have also made major strides in taking care of our military personnel, spouses, and their families, and launched important initiatives to improve diversity, inclusion, and equity in the armed services,” Esper wrote in the memo (pdf).

“At the same time, we stood up the Space Force and Space Command, recapitalized the nuclear triad, expanded the authorities and resources of Cyber Command, and proposed a bold vision for a future Navy.”

The president didn’t provide a reason why Esper was fired. He was appointed by Trump in 2019 before he was nearly unanimously approved by the Senate in a 90–8 vote.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on Nov. 10 criticized the staffing shakeup at the Pentagon, saying in a statement that it’s “hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition.”

Some members of Congress had called on Trump to retain Esper.

“For the good of our country and the brave men and women in uniform, I hope [Esper] will continue to serve for the remainder of the Trump presidency,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told Politico earlier this month.

Esper replaced James Mattis, who resigned after disagreeing with the Trump administration’s move to withdraw troops from Syria. Esper, 56, had been serving as Army secretary since Trump picked him in July 2019.

Jack Phillips contributed to this report.

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