In the weeks since the president lost his re-election bid, the Trump administration has purged the leadership at the Defense Department and brought in loyalists, while making other big moves elsewhere in the department.
While the incoming Biden administration could undo all of these changes if it wanted, it might not be easy to do so quickly.
Reversing these recent changes could take weeks, maybe months, while some other impacts of the Trump presidency on the department could potentially take years, a former Pentagon official told Insider.
President Donald Trump has made big changes to the military during his presidency, but his administration has been particularly busy in the weeks since he lost the election.
Shortly after the election, Trump’s White House purged the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, specifically the secretary of defense and his chief of staff, as well as the top policy and intelligence positions, and filled vacant posts with Trump loyalists.
After only a week on the job, Trump’s new defense secretary announced plans to pull thousands of US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. The administration is also pulling troops out of Somalia.
And then late last month, the White House pushed out the Pentagon official overseeing the Department of Defense’s fight against the Islamic State and disbanded the task force he led.
The Trump administration also purged both the Defense Policy Board and Defense Business Board, independent panels of outside experts in place to advise senior Pentagon leaders. Among those who filled the vacancies on the latter were two former Trump campaign staffers.
This week, the outgoing administration also rolled out a shipbuilding plan calling for a raid on tens of billions of dollars in the Pentagon’s war chest to fund the construction of a massive fleet to compete with China, an unusual move given that the incoming Biden administration will submit its own budget.
It is not entirely clear why the Trump administration would make these moves with only a few weeks left, but several former Pentagon officials have suggested that many of these moves are likely vindictive and aimed at complicating things for the new administration.
“At best, these distract from an orderly transition,” Mark Jacobson, a former defense official who served during the Obama administration, told Politico, adding that at worst, these actions “are a deliberate attempt to box in or hobble the incoming administration.”
While Joe Biden, as the president, could undo many of these changes, the challenge will be figuring out which of the knots in his shoe strings need to be undone and the priority these matters deserve among a myriad of other domestic and international issues that will need to be addressed once he takes office in January.
“The first thing is identifying all the knots,” a former Pentagon official who has experienced past transitions at the Defense Department told Insider. “There are the obvious ones we know about, but what about other ones that aren’t as visible?”
The former defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the incoming and outgoing administrations, said that the Biden administration will likely have a lot on its plate from the start and will have to perform triage – identifying the issues, figuring out levels of importance, and deciding what should change and when. That entire process could take weeks, if not months.
And that is just the problems like staffing at the Pentagon and policy decisions. There are other problems that could potentially take years to correct.
As president, Trump has used the military as a prop while publicly and privately deriding its leaders. He has aggressively wielded its power at home and overseas. He has also granted clemency to troops accused or convicted of war crimes, in one case barring military leaders from reviewing a Navy SEAL’s conduct.
Rectifying the politicization of the military and restoring accountability in its ranks may take longer to properly address, the former official said. There is also the issue of credibility.
“They need to address the trust and credibility issues that have plagued the Pentagon under Trump,” the former official explained. “But, that takes time. That’s not something you can change quickly. Trust and credibility once lost take a long time to rebuild again.”
That means rebuilding not only credibility with the American public and the press at home, but also with US allies and partners abroad.
“That will take time,” the former Pentagon official told Insider. “You have to show over time that your actions match your words. You can’t just come in and say it’s all going to be different. You are going to have to prove it.”
Biden has selected Lloyd Austin, a retired US Army four-star general, to lead the Pentagon as secretary of defense.
“In my judgment, there’s no question that he is the right person for this job at the right moment leading the Department of Defense at this moment in our nation’s history,” the president-elect said Wednesday. “He’s the definition of duty, honor, country.”
Despite Biden’s words of support, Austin’s selection for the position of secretary of defense has come under fire from critics on both the right and the left, and he is expected to face a tough confirmation process.
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