Defeated Trump Purges Top Pentagon, Intel Officials And Installs Loyalists

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Aerial view of the Pentagon building photographed on Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Aerial view of the Pentagon building photographed on Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
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Mark Esper was just the start. Days after President Trump lost the 2020 election, and hours after the ouster of the defense secretary that had been long in his crosshairs, several other officials in top Pentagon and Intelligence Community roles have been canned. Their replacements all have a reputation for being Trump loyalists. Two of them worked for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) before joining the administration and a third has also been linked to Nunes’ efforts to politicize intelligence to further Trump’s false claims about the “Deep State.”

Here’s a look at the new line-up:

Michael Ellis: Michael Ellis, a top official on the National Security Council, was reportedly installed as general counsel for the National Security Agency Monday, kicking off the wave of dubious reassignments.. Ellis, a former staffer to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), has played a key role in some of the controversies at the White House that arose when the President’s agenda collided with national security protocols. He reportedly was involved in the notorious “midnight run,” when Trump NSC officials, early on in the administration, provided to Nunes intelligence reports that Nunes claimed validated Trump’s false assertion that the Obama administration surveilled Trump Tower. 

Ellis also popped up in the Ukraine impeachment scandal, as the official who put  the transcript of Trump’s infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky in a more highly classified system. He was also singled out by a career NSC classification expert for intervening in her review of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book and allegedly politicizing the review process.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick: Like Ellis, Cohen-Watnick joined the administration in the early days and he is now replacing as the Pentagon’s undersecretary for intelligence the ousted James Kernan, who had been confirmed by the Senate in 2017. Cohen-Watnick was brought into the White House as senior director of intelligence programs at the start of Trump’s presidency as an acolyte of then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. He survived when Flynn himself was fired for lying about his Russian contacts. 

Cohen-Watnick has also been linked in news reports to the “midnight run” episode. In 2018, a few months after leaving the White House, he joined the Justice Department as a national security advisor — a job he was reportedly given under orders from President Trump. By 2020, he made his way to the Pentagon, initially working in a counternarcotics role. 

Kash Patel: Patel, another former Nunes staffer, was named chief of staff to the acting secretary. Patel first made a name for himself as part of Nunes’ effort to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and later, as a contact for Rudy Giuliani on the committee when Giuliani was digging up anti-Biden dirt in Ukraine.

Patel joined the White House National Security Council in 2019 and later served as an aide to Ric Grenell, the Republican operative, when Grenell became acting director of national intelligence for a spell earlier this year. Alexander Vindman, the now-retired NSC whistleblower, testified during Trump’s impeachment hearings that Patel had held himself out as an expert on Ukraine to Trump, even though he didn’t have the necessary expertise. Vindman testified that he was prevented from briefing Trump on Zelensky’s inauguration because Trump apparently believed Patel was the NSC’s top Ukraine official. 

Anthony Tata: One of the most jarring changes announced Tuesday may have been the elevation of Tata to the top policy job at the Pentagon. Though Tata was once formally nominated to become undersecretary of defense for policy, his history of making outrageous and bigoted claims, and threats against his perceived enemies online, doomed his chances in the Senate. So the administration did what it’s done elsewhere, skipping the Senate entirely and making Tata “the official performing the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.” Now, he’s also the official performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for policy. Quite a promotion, with no Senate vote in sight — just a convenient departure

In posts uncovered by CNN, Tata falsely referred to former President Barack Obama as a Muslim, and called him a “Manchurian candidate” and a “terrorist leader” who did more to harm the US “and help Islamic countries than any president in history,” among other things. Once, Tata wrote to former CIA Director John Brennan, “Might be a good time to pick your poison: firing squad, public hanging, life sentence as prison b*tch, or just suck on your pistol.” 

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