President Donald Trump and his allies in the administration are dislodging officials across the government and burrowing loyalists into agencies in a way that could make them difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to remove next year.
The moves following Trump’s loss to Biden, which the President has thus far refused to accept, appear to be an effort to shape the government to Trump’s liking on his way out the door, while also impeding Biden’s transition to power. Biden’s transition has yet to officially start because the Government Services Administration, the obscure agency that runs the transition process, has not formally accepted Biden as the winner.
Since the election, more than a half-dozen senior officials across the government have either been fired, demoted or resigned.
The biggest name so far has been former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who Trump fired by tweet on Monday. A day later, the Pentagon’s top policy official, James Anderson, resigned and was replaced in an acting capacity by controversial retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, whose confirmation was jettisoned amid bipartisan opposition earlier this year. The Pentagon’s Undersecretary for Intelligence Joseph Kernan also resigned Tuesday, along with Esper’s chief of staff, Jen Stewart.
One defense official said of the moves, “This is scary. It’s very unsettling.”
“These are dictator moves,” the official said.
Others appear to be at risk of being fired after falling out of favor with Trump, including CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Chris Wray, who have both been criticized by the President and his conservative allies for not sufficiently cooperating with efforts to investigate the FBI’s 2016 probe into the Trump campaign and Russia.
Top officials at the agencies overseeing the safety of US nuclear infrastructure, the Justice Department’s election fraud branch, US foreign aid and a key climate change report have all also been removed over the past week.
It’s not clear whether the firings and resignations are part of a strategy to use the government levers of power in the final weeks of Trump’s presidency, or simply cases where officials deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump are being forced out or leaving on their own volition.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted his support for the Senate to confirm Nathan Simington as FCC commissioner, ahead of his Senate confirmation hearing. Trump has been urging the FCC to remove protections given to social media companies like Facebook and Google over their content moderation decisions, but some legal experts dispute that the FCC has authority to do so.
‘Burrowing’ in the government
At the same time, political officials who are allied with Trump are taking on new roles that put them in career positions, which come with civil service protections.
Michael Ellis, an official on the National Security Council, shifted over to the National Security Agency as legal counsel, which takes him out of a political appointee role at the White House and into a civil servant position, two sources confirmed to CNN. This makes Ellis harder to fire once the Biden administration comes in, the sources said, adding that the strategy is called “burrowing.”
“It happens in every administration but is unprecedented in a position of this nature,” a Senate Democratic aide told CNN.
Ellis is widely considered to be a partisan Trump loyalist and has little intelligence experience despite being elevated to the job of as the White House’s top national security lawyer under the President. Ellis was part of several White House controversies, including overruling career officials over classified information being contained in the book written by former national security adviser John Bolton.
Ellis was also in the room when Alexander Vindman reported his concerns about Trump’s 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to NSC Counsel John Eisenberg, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting.
CNN has previously reported that Ellis came under scrutiny for his alleged roundabout role in providing information to GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, showing members of Trump’s team were included in foreign surveillance reports collected by US intelligence.
The NSA, along with the CIA, has resisted a push from Trump and his allies to declassify intelligence documents related to the FBI’s 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia.
Another former Nunes aide, Kash Patel, will become chief of staff to acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, according to an administration official and a US defense official. Patel, who most recently served as senior director for counterterrorism at the White House National Security Council, has a “very close” working relationship with Miller, the administration official said.
In addition, the week before the election, Trent Benishek was moved from the White House counsel’s office to be general counsel of the GSA, the agency that oversees the presidential transition. Beinishek served on the team that defended Trump during the impeachment trial. The GSA’s legal position on Biden transition is now under intense scrutiny after the GSA opted not to confirm Biden’s victory and begin the transition process.
Officials ousted quickly after the election
Esper’s firing – and the prospect that Haspel and Wray may soon follow – was anticipated before the election. Esper was on shaky ground with the White House for months leading up to the election.
Other removals happened even more quickly after last week’s election.
Bonnie Glick, the second highest-ranking official at the US Agency for International Development, was ousted on Friday. Glick received a note from the White House on Friday afternoon telling her that she needed to resign by 5 p.m. or she would be terminated without cause at the pleasure of the President, CNN reported last week.
Lisa Gordon Hagerty, the top official leading the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile, also resigned on Friday after Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette told her to do so.
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, slammed the move, saying the Energy secretary’s demand for her resignation “demonstrates he doesn’t know what he’s doing in national security matters and shows a complete lack of respect for the semi-autonomous nature of NNSA.”
On Thursday last week, Trump named James Danly as the new chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, replacing Neil Chatterjee. Chatterjee, who is still on the commission, told CNN Tuesday that he has not spoken to the White House about why he was replaced atop the commission, but said there was speculation he was removed for two reasons: his support for carbon pricing and because he did not stop conducting diversity trainings following a White House move to curb them.
Chatterjee believed he was targeted by “junior-level folks trying to settle scores,” and not a larger White House plot.
On Monday, Michael Kuperberg was removed as the head of the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report on climate change, The New York Times reported. Kuperberg returned to the Energy Department.
And Richard Pilger, the director of the elections crimes branch in the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, resigned in protest Monday after Attorney General William Barr told federal prosecutors that they should examine allegations of voting irregularities before states move to certify the election results. Pilger will remain a prosecutor in the Justice unit that investigates public corruption.
Targeting Esper’s deputies
Following Esper’s firing on Monday, Anderson resigned from his position Tuesday morning. It’s not clear if Anderson was asked to resign.
Kernan, who also resigned Tuesday, said in his farewell note to colleagues that his departure was planned. He’s being replaced on an acting basis by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who gained notoriety in March 2017 for his alleged involvement with Ellis in providing intelligence materials to Nunes, who went on to claim that US intelligence officials improperly surveilled Trump associates.
Knowledgeable sources told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the White House now seems focused on going after Esper’s undersecretaries at the Defense Department in the wake of his ouster.
Following Esper’s removal, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned Trump not to fire any other national security officials, saying Trump “must not invite further volatility by removing any Senate-confirmed intelligence or national security officials during his time left in office.”
Tata, who is taking over Anderson’s duties, was nominated to become the top Pentagon policy aide earlier this year. But his nomination was pulled due to bipartisan opposition, after CNN’s KFile reported he has made numerous Islamophobic and offensive comments and promoted conspiracy theories. Tata was instead placed in an acting role below Anderson.
In a farewell message, Anderson told his team to “remain mission focused, apolitical, and never to forget your oath of office.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Evan Perez, Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne, Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood and Jake Tapper contributed to this report.