White House pushes odd loyalists for key Pentagon posts

When it comes to the Pentagon, the White House appears to only have one priority: installing presidential loyalists in key positions.
This picture taken 26 December 2011 show
An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington on Dec. 26, 2011.AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

Up until very recently, Michael Griffin served as the under secretary of Defense for research and engineering, and there were no questions about his qualifications. Griffin, who's 70 years old, has several academic degrees, including a PhD in aerospace engineering, and he led NASA for four years.

He recently stepped down from his post, and yesterday, the White House announced who'll fill Griffin's shoes: Michael Kratsios, a 33-year-old Republican with a bachelor's degree in political science, who's led the White House's technology office. According to the New York Times, Kratsios, before joining Team Trump, worked as the chief of staff to Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who's supported Donald Trump.

Given the two men's respective backgrounds, it may seem like a drop-off at the Pentagon's research-and-engineering office. Complicating matters, Kratsios apparently plans to keep his White House gig, which will probably make it difficult for him to do both jobs well.

But as Politico reported, the White House appears to only have one priority: installing presidential loyalists at the Department of Defense.

The White House is taking advantage of a loophole to install loyalists to President Donald Trump in acting senior roles at the Pentagon, effectively skirting the Senate confirmation process. While the number of vacancies isn't new -- one-third of the Defense Department's 60 Senate-confirmed positions are filled on a temporary basis -- the White House in recent months has been sending over people to fill open spots, as opposed to the more traditional method of tapping people within the Pentagon.

Kratsios isn't the only curious personnel choice of late. Trump recently nominated retired Gen. Anthony Tata to serve as the Pentagon’s top policy official, despite (or perhaps because of?) Tata's record of peddling crackpot nonsense via social and broadcast media.

With Tata's Senate confirmation in doubt, the White House is reportedly prepared to simply install him in a different senior DOD post, which wouldn't require senators' approval.

And in case this weren't quite enough, CNN had this report yesterday:

The White House is pushing the Department of Defense to hire a former National Security Council staffer who has repeatedly pushed fringe conspiracy theories on Twitter and in media appearances. Rich Higgins, a former aide who says he was fired from the National Security Council in 2017 for sending a conspiratorial memo, is currently being considered to serve as chief of staff to retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, the White House's nominee for the under secretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.

This comes on the heels of a related report from Foreign Policy, which recently noted that the White House push on Higgins is "part of an aggressive push to staff the Pentagon with figures loyal to U.S. President Donald Trump and with connections to ousted former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn."

The article added that this position "is usually held by a non-political appointee," though in the Trump era, such norms are ignored.

“He’s very typical of this s**tshow of an administration,” a former Pentagon official said in reference to Higgins.