Both the Obama and Trump administrations struggled when it comes to the overall workforce for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In September 2019, the last time the Office of Personnel Management published data on the subject, 360 of the 1,842 OSD employees were minorities. The breakdown was similar in the Obama administration: In September 2016, 383 employees were minorities out of 2,032 total employees.
Aside from the diversity issue, experts say that such a high number of senior DoD appointments is unusual for the end of a presidential term, which is a natural point for officials to leave the government to seek new opportunities or in expectation of a transition.
At this point in a presidential term, “the flow is usually out, not in,” said Jim Townsend, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy from 2009 to 2017.
“By now, no matter what the odds are whether they win or lose, people who have been there for a while, this is when they start to leave,” Townsend said.
But the Trump White House has never held back in breaking from precedent. Officials are “confident for a second term,” and seizing the opportunity to install a new operation at the Pentagon, said one defense official, who requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive personnel moves. Out of the 11 recent appointees, six are acting in a temporary capacity.
Installing loyalists at DoD and other U.S. government agencies is nothing new for the Trump administration. Early this year, the White House began a campaign to root out Pentagon employees seen as disloyal and replace them with Trump acolytes. The administration has effectively skirted the Senate confirmation process by sending over people to fill open spots in an acting capacity, as opposed to the more traditional method of tapping people within the Pentagon.
Experts and Democratic lawmakers alike have blasted the campaign. A climate that values loyalty over expertise, they say, makes it harder to recruit the best people for the job, and undermines the military’s efforts to stay above politics.
In recent weeks, the White House has moved five officials from the White House to senior positions at DoD: Michael Cutrone, a former aide to Vice President Mike Pence, recently took charge of international security policy; Michael Kratsios, the 33-year-old White House chief technology officer, now oversees DoD’s research arm; Ezra Cohen-Watnick, an aide to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, is now responsible for special operations and low-intensity conflict; Joseph Francescon, who worked on counterterrorism and threat networks at the NSC until June, is now a deputy in the special operations shop; and Thomas Williams returned in mid-June from a two-year stint on the NSC to a position working on strategies, plans and capabilities for DoD.
Meanwhile, Donald Loren moved over from the Department of Veterans Affairs in July to start a position as the deputy for plans.
In the group’s most notable appointment, in August, retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata was designated as the official “performing the duties of” the No. 2 policy official after his nomination to run the policy shop was upended amid opposition from the Senate. Tata, an author and TV commentator who has frequently defended Trump’s policies, has come under fire in recent months for derogatory statements about Muslims and prominent Democratic politicians.
The department has also promoted several officials internally in recent weeks: Matt Bush was appointed as Francescon’s principal director on Aug. 9; Joe McMenamin is now the acting deputy for counternarcotics and global threats; Dennis Bartow, who previously worked on small business programs in DoD, began a position as deputy for African affairs on Sept. 8; and Justin Johnson, formerly Esper’s deputy chief of staff, was recently appointed acting deputy in…