The White House’s plan to withdraw thousands of US troops from Germany is emerging as a new point of tension between the President and top Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who has avoided criticizing the move publicly but has significant concerns about it, multiple current and former officials tell CNN.
Typically, plans that involve moving a large number of troops is coordinated closely with the Pentagon to reach an achievable goal. But this time the specific order to pull nearly 10,000 troops from Germany came from inside the White House, despite concerns from the Pentagon that it compromises America’s Europe-based defense against Russia.
The fact that Esper has not fully backed the plan is a reflection of his badly damaged relationship with Trump. It also highlights the rising influence of two key White House officials: national security adviser Robert O’Brien and Trump’s former acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell, both of whom have been strong advocates for removing troops from Germany and have maneuvered to stay in Trump’s good graces.
“Their stock is very high right now,” an administration official told CNN.
Since stepping down as acting DNI last month, Grenell has taken on multiple new positions both inside and outside the administration, including a part time job on the national security council working under O’Brien. Going back to his time as the US Ambassador to Germany, Grenell has been a driving force behind the push to draw down troops there.
Since Grenell returned to the White House last year, there is a wide belief among current national security officials that he and O’Brien have worked to isolate Esper, according to three sources familiar with the internal dynamics. Though others believe that Esper’s influence has waned in large part because he has refused to engage in politics.
The defense secretary has been on shaky ground with the White House for the past several weeks. Two days after Trump’s photo-op in front of St. John’s Church, he publicly broke with the President over using active duty troops to quell the large-scale protests triggered by the death of George Floyd. CNN reported at the time that Esper was prepared to resign afterward and believed Trump was ready to fire him.
On Thursday, Grenell pushed back on the notion that he and O’Brien have actively tried to sideline Esper, who Grenell says was present throughout the months-long discussion over pulling troops out of Germany.
“The President wanted a thoughtful process from DoD,” Grenell told CNN. “Back then the whole discussion was about how many do we adjust so that some (troops) go to Poland, and how many do we bring home.”
As talks progressed however, a key disagreement emerged over how many of the roughly 34,500 US troops to withdraw. While Pentagon officials were willing to adjust troop levels in Germany if it did not damage US deterrence against Russia, the President has publicly characterized the withdrawal he ordered as retribution against Germany, which he claims does not contribute its fair share of funding to NATO.
On Wednesday, Esper left for NATO, where the topic of a potential withdrawal of US forces from Europe will inevitably be raised.
“Secretary Esper met with President Trump on Wednesday to discuss our presence in Europe,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman. “On Monday the Secretary will brief the President at the White House on options for our force posture in Germany.”
Grenell and O’Brien
Several sources have said that O’Brien is attempting to position himself as the next Secretary of Defense should Trump win a second term, and that Grenell is posturing himself to be the next secretary of state – something he has either denied or refused to acknowledge. On Tuesday at the Students For Trump conference in Phoenix, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Trump ally, asked Grenell if he will serve as secretary of state in a second Trump administration. Grenell responded, “I don’t think I can answer that.”
O’Brien and Grenell have a close relationship and have known each other since the mid-2000s, when they both worked at the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration, according to a source familiar with their relationship.
O’Brien was key in calling for Grenell to serve as acting DNI after the removal of Joseph McGuire, according to one current and one former administration official.
O’Brien, viewed Grenell as a loyal soldier to send to DNI, and also felt that by appointing Grenell, a highly controversial figure even among conservatives, they might pave the way for the swift confirmation of whoever would be nominated, these people said.
While the pair has managed to gain favor with Trump, their maneuvering has angered some key allies of the President, including the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, who says O’Brien failed to give him a heads up about the plan to remove US troops from Germany.
“That came from O’Brien. He signed it. That’s what I understand,” the Oklahoma Republican told reporters on Wednesday.
“I’m the last one to find out about it,” he added. “I should have been the first one.”
Sources across the administration have told CNN that O’Brien has encouraged the President’s increasingly negative view of Esper.
For months, Trump and O’Brien have been losing faith in Esper, noting his tendency to avoid offering a full-throated defense of the President or his policies, multiple administration officials previously told CNN.
Trump has privately expressed frustrations with Esper, including venting about him at length during a recent weekend at Camp David, according to multiple sources.
O’Brien has spoken to the President about Esper’s television remarks, which the White House has felt were problematic or off-message on several occasions. In at least one instance, O’Brien presented the President with print-outs that compared his own public remarks on a topic to those of Esper to highlight the contrast.
Proximity has also played a part in the divide, one source close to O’Brien noted. With his office in the West Wing, O’Brien is able be in the Oval Office within a minute’s notice, while the time it takes Esper to travel from the Pentagon after being summoned by Trump has occasionally irked the impatient President, this source added.
Trump appears to have no issues with O’Brien stepping on Esper’s toes, telling reporters at the White House on Monday that he intended to follow through with his national security adviser’s recommendation to relocate US troops stationed in Germany.
Trump reiterated his stance during a press conference in the Rose Garden on Wednesday with Polish President Andrzej Duda. “We will probably be moving them from Germany to Poland,” Trump said, adding that he wanted to bring US troop levels there to 25,000. “Some will be coming home and some will be going to other places and Poland would be one of those places.”
Though Duda is in favor of moving troops to Poland, he made clear he opposes reducing the total number of US forces in Europe, saying it would be “very detrimental to European security.”
Deeper tensions with the Pentagon
Trump’s frustration with Esper is indicative of a broader tension between the President and military leaders at the Pentagon.
Amid criticism over his appearance in battle fatigues during the President’s St. John’s photo-op, Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also weighed whether he could effectively stay on, according to several current and retired officials who spoke to CNN.
Milley was so uncertain about his future that he privately consulted close colleagues, including several retired senior generals.
The tension over how to respond to protests has flowed into the move to withdraw troops from Germany, according to multiple current and former officials.
While defense officials had weighed moving some forces from Germany in the past, several US and NATO officials told CNN earlier this month that the size and timing of the reduction were unexpected.
Discussions over removing troops from Germany began early last fall, according to one administration official. When the idea was set into motion, “mid-level” officials with the Defense Department pushed back, asking instead to increase the number of troops there, this person said.
In December, top US officials who attended the NATO summit in London picked up on the discussions and Grenell raised the issue with Esper, highlighting the President’s interest in troop withdrawal, this person said.
The Pentagon has said it is working on options “consistent with the President’s directive” to significantly reduce the number of troops in Germany, but defense officials were caught off guard by Trump’s initial demand and were largely excluded from the decision-making process, sources said.
Now, it’s up to Esper to carry it out, despite believing that Trump’s demand is logistically impossible and something NATO allies privately oppose.
“Mark Esper is well aware of the physics of the problem” of such a withdrawal, one official said.
O’Brien, on the other hand, is defending the move.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this week, he argued the troop reduction is essential to “counter China and Russia, two great-power competitors.”
If successful, the move could amount to a signature win for O’Brien, but several GOP lawmakers are unhappy about it. A group of Republicans, led by Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran – urged Trump not to reduce the number of troops in Germany in a letter this week, arguing that the move will negatively impact NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression.
More than 20 Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee, including the panel’s chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, echoed that point in a separate letter earlier this month in which they asked the White House to reconsider its plan.
Two congressional aides familiar with the outreach told CNN they do not expect the letters to have much success in convincing Trump to change course unless Esper or Milley are able to intervene in some way.
For Inhofe, who remains a powerful ally for Trump on Capitol Hill, the fault lies with O’Brien, not Trump. “He has a passionate love for our troops and he would not do anything that would impose an unbearable hardship on our troops,” Inhofe said Wednesday of the President.
“I just know that that would not be something that he would initiate because know him too well.”
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Ryan Browne contributed to this report.