The moves underscore the continuing game of revolving chairs at the Pentagon where a bevy of top positions are filled by “acting” officials, while the Senate likely has little time for nomination hearings during a busy summer and election year.
Today’s resignation of Katie Wheelbarger, who oversees international security affairs and had been nominated to be the military’s second highest-ranking intelligence official, comes two days after Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, announced she was also stepping down.
Wheelbarger’s departure from the job as acting assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, which she has held since October 2018, and McCusker’s departure as acting comptroller, which she assumed last summer, come despite both women having been nominated by the White House. Apparently, questions arose as to their personal loyalty to President Trump and their nominations were scuttled by the same administration that had nominated them.
After he survived his impeachment, President Trump moved to begin removing those who whom he saw as disloyal. With the election looming, and the country reeling under the twin effects of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, the Trump administration is sweeping through the ranks of political appointees to ensure their loyalty to the president.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper today sang Wheelbarger’s praises, saying in a statement, “Katie brought a wealth of experience and the utmost professionalism to the Department throughout her service. Her leadership in support of the National Defense Strategy is evident in the proud accomplishments of her team. She is someone I got to know well over the last three years and, with sincere appreciation for her many contributions and years of service, I wish Katie the very best in what I’m sure will be a very bright future.”
Wheelbarger, a former top aide on the Senate Armed Services Committee when the late Sen. John McCain was chairman and counsel to Vice President Cheney, before being brought to the Pentagon by then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, was nominated to be deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence on Feb. 13. Last week, the White House signaled it would instead nominate Bradley Hansell, a former Trump White House official, instead. The administration sent that nomination to the Senate on Thursday.
Before assuming her current acting role, Wheelbarger was confirmed as the principal deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs, but the White House recently decided to move Michael Cutrone, Vice President Mike Pence’s former top national security adviser for South Asia, into that role, essentially freezing Wheelbarger out of the building.
As for McCusker, despite the fact that she was nominated for the comptroller position late last year, the White House pulled her nomination in March after leaked emails showed she was deeply concerned over the administration’s demands to hold up aid to Ukraine .
In a series of emails obtained by The New York Times, McCusker wrote to White House official Michael Duffy, “You can’t be serious. I am speechless,” when he floated the idea that the Pentagon, not the White House, would be blamed for holding up aid to Ukraine.
The White House announced March 2 that McCusker’s nomination was being withdrawn. There has been no announcement of a replacement.
The top-level departures come as a new Trump nominee to fill the Pentagon’s top civilian policy position, retired Army Gen. Anthony Tata, comes under fire from Senate Democrats and several retired four-star generals.
Tata, a retired one-star general who has become a vociferous defender of President Trump on Fox News, had posted a series of Tweets in previous years accusing President Barack Obama of being a “terrorist leader” working to assist Iran, and called Islam “the most oppressive, violent religion” in the world.
The Wall Street Journal reported today that former leader Gen. Joseph Votel, and former SOCOM chief Gen. Tony Thomas, both pulled their support for Tata’s confirmation after learning of his comments.
Several Democrats, including Sen. Jack Reed, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, have signaled they would oppose Tata’s nomination. Joining Reed are Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Mazie Hirono, Richard Blumenthal and Gary Peters.
No hearings have been scheduled for any of these positions because the Senate is wrestling with a police reform package, markups to the 2021 defense budget proposal. And Congress, of course, is readying to leave town for to campaign for the November elections. D.N.