The Pentagon saw a string of high-level departures this week after President Donald Trump said he "terminated" the defense secretary, and the administration filled a number of those voids with Trump loyalists.
Some in the Department of Defense and Congress expressed concerns about those drastic moves in the immediate aftermath of Trump's electoral defeat, with one lawmaker writing in a statement that postelection "chaos has now reached the Pentagon."
David Lapan, a former Department of Defense spokesman with decades of military service, told Insider the moves did not make sense and were therefore "cause for alarm."
Top Pentagon leadership positions are being packed with loyalists to President Donald Trump for reasons that are unclear and triggering mounting concern.
Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Monday, and the very next day, the chief of staff to the secretary of defense, Jen Stewart; the under secretary of defense for policy, James Anderson; and the under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, Joseph Kernan, resigned.
Chris Miller, formerly the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, replaced Esper. Anthony Tata, a former Fox News commentator who the Trump administration sidestepped Congress to slip into the Pentagon, replaced Anderson, and Kash Patel and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, both former members of the National Security Council considered loyal to the president, replaced Stewart and Kernan.
And there is speculation that more defense officials may be on their way out and that this is just the beginning — even with only 70 days until the Biden administration takes over. Trump, however, has refused to acknowledge his defeat for five days and instead baselessly claimed election fraud.
The flurry of departures apparently sent shockwaves through the Department of Defense. A defense official told CNN that the situation was "unsettling," adding that "these are dictator moves." The Associated Press wrote that "unease was palpable inside" the Pentagon on Tuesday.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, sounded the alarm Tuesday afternoon, accusing Trump of sowing chaos and division after losing the election. "That chaos has now reached the Pentagon," he wrote.
"I've been shot at a lot. I've been nearly killed a bunch of times. I'm not an alarmist. I try to stay cool under pressure. Mark me down as alarmed," the retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey said on MSNBC on Wednesday.
"We are watching the setup of people who are unqualified for office to be in control of the 2.1 million men and women of the armed forces," he added.
David Lapan, a former Pentagon spokesman with decades of military service, told Insider that one "cause for alarm" was "not knowing why this is being done."
"You have an administration with very little credibility, little to none," he added. "The level of trust is very low, so people are naturally going to think the worst. And the administration isn't taking steps to reassure anyone about why they're taking these actions."
"I think what has everybody most concerned is that it doesn't make sense," Lapan said.
If it were vindictive, a response to Trump's souring on Esper, then the president could have simply fired Esper and elevated Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist. But that didn't happen. Instead, someone was brought in from outside, and then the departures accelerated.
"There is no rational explanation for it," he said. "There are any number of bad scenarios that could play out. We don't know which of those might be true, if any, but in the absence of any better explanation, people are concerned."
Lapan said the people coming in largely appeared to be unqualified or underqualified for the positions they were taking over, potentially crippling the military's leadership. Some worry these acting officials do not have the leverage to block or would even enable the orders of a president who increasingly shows little regard for democratic processes.
Their lack of experience with their new Pentagon roles also could hinder the transition process, because when President-elect Joe Biden's team is finally able to get that process moving it will be forced to rely on people who have been on the job for only a matter of weeks.
Trump continues to contest the election and repeatedly level baseless attacks on the legitimacy of Biden's win.
"Again, you have an administration that operates with a deficit of trust, so in this environment, people are going to question their motives," Lapan said. "People are going to worry about what could happen."
The problem is that the upheavals at the Pentagon create uncertainty for the Department of Defense as a whole, for both the military and civilian employees, he said. Furthermore, it confuses America's allies and could give an opening to US adversaries.
"All of those things are essentially damaging, not only to the Department of Defense, but to our country," Lapan said. "That's why people are worked up about it. There's just a lot of potential danger there."
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