The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.

Pentagon deals with leadership upheaval in the Trump era


Nearly three months ago, Politico reported on the “power vacuum” at the Pentagon, where a “large number of acting officials has slowed decisions, handicapped the department in policy disputes, and unduly empowered the White House.”

What we didn’t know when the article was published is the degree to which matters were poised to get worse.

After Patrick Shanahan, the acting secretary of Defense, exited the stage in June under difficult circumstances, a series of personnel moves unfolded, leaving the Pentagon with its third acting secretary of 2019. The Washington Post reported on the new succession plan made public yesterday.

Mark Esper, who became acting defense secretary on June 24 after his predecessor, then-acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, abruptly stepped aside, is expected to hand over to a third acting secretary, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, when the White House formally submits Esper’s nomination to the Senate for confirmation.

Under a federal law known as the Vacancies Act, Esper, who has been serving as Army secretary since 2017, is required to step aside while the Senate considers his nomination for the top Pentagon job. When he will do so is not clear, as the requirement will be activated only when the White House officially transmits his nomination to the Senate.

Let’s pause to consider how we reached this point. As regular readers may recall, the original plan was for James Mattis to serve as the secretary of Defense through the end of February, giving the White House time to search for his successor, choose a nominee, and create the conditions for a smooth transition from one Pentagon chief to the next.

The president blew up that plan when someone told him what Mattis said in the resignation letter Trump hadn’t bothered to read.

In the months that followed, the Defense Department has been forced to deal with the kind of leadership upheaval it’s traditionally avoided. Indeed, the mess is poised to get worse before it gets better.

Esper is the acting secretary now, but he’ll soon have to step aside while the Senate considers his nomination. The Navy secretary will become the acting Defense secretary, which naturally means there will have to be an acting Navy secretary, too.

They’ll all be working alongside an acting deputy Defense secretary, acting Air Force secretary, and an acting Army secretary.

And did I mention that the man poised to help lead the lead the Navy just retired – less than a month before he was supposed to become the chief of naval operations? Because that’s what Adm. Bill Moran did over the holiday weekend.

It’s quite an operation the amateur Commander in Chief is running.