What in the world is Donald Trump’s newly installed deep state at the Pentagon up to?
By Tim Weiner
The president barricades himself in the White House, insisting the election was stolen. The secretary of state proclaims an imminent second Trump term. And it seems as if there might be a putsch going on at the Pentagon.
These are dictator moves, signifying the death rattles of the old regime. But what's happening at the Department of Defense might be the most alarming development of all.
President Donald Trump has been in the grip of a delusion for four years. He thinks the American intelligence community constitutes a deep state conspiring against him; that a dark cabal created the "Russia hoax" in an attempt to overthrow him. It possesses an immense treasure trove of top-secret records that will prove his case. He imagines an arsenal of smoking guns secreted inside the Pentagon, the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency. He wants them stacked on his desk.
No one can say for sure that his vision of vindication is propelling this purge. But the signs sure seem to point that way.
First, Trump fired the secretary of defense with a tweet: "Mike Esper has been terminated." In Trump's eyes, Esper had joined the resistance. He had warned that the wholesale declassification the president demands would do great damage to national security, "including specific harm to the military", as The Washington Post reported.
Then, Trump vaulted a trio of conspiracy theorists and sycophants into three top Pentagon posts – the chief of staff, the senior-most intelligence post, and a key policy position. All three share Trump's animus toward the American intelligence community. All three have fed his unhinged deep-state fears. And now, for the next 10 weeks, they can run a little deep state all their own.
Let's have a look at this dream team and some nerve-racking rationales for its existence.
Meet Anthony Tata, the new acting undersecretary of defense for policy, catapulted to power after Trump saw him on Fox News. Not a well-tempered man. Here's a message he tweeted to the former CIA director John Brennan in 2018: "Pick your poison: firing squad, public hanging, life sentence as prison b*tch, or just suck on your pistol. Your call." Tata said Brennan should be arrested for a conspiracy to assassinate Trump. He slandered president Barack Obama as a terrorist leader. And he consistently called on Trump to eradicate the "Deep State Cabal".
Next, there is Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the Pentagon's acting undersecretary of intelligence. He's a protege of Mike Flynn's. Remember Mike Flynn? Trump's first of four national security advisers? The one who pleaded guilty twice to lying to the FBI? Cohen-Watnick, who just turned 34, is a fierce Iran hawk who now has a measure of authority over America's special-operations forces. He served as senior intelligence director at the National Security Council at the start of the Trump years, and he wanted to use covert action to overthrow Iran.
Cohen-Watnick was one of two White House officials who fed Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the conspiracy theory that Obama spied on Trump's campaign. At the time, Nunes was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He sought to undermine the idea that members of Team Trump – like Flynn and campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is serving a prison term for financial crimes – had connections with Team Putin in 2016. The FBI was investigating Flynn, a key member of the Trump campaign. The Post had noted that intelligence intercepts showed that Flynn was trying to make foreign policy in secret with the Russian ambassador in December 2016 – before Trump's inauguration. Flynn had lied to the FBI about those talks.
Nunes showed up at the White House at midnight three months into Trump's presidency. Cohen-Watnick backhanded him a sheaf of documents purporting to show illegal intelligence surveillance of Trump's campaign. The result of the midnight ride was political theatre – or, you might say, a hoax. The Obama administration hadn't committed crimes. Team Trump had (Michael Ellis, formerly chief counsel to Nunes, was part of this shadow play. Now he's newly installed as general counsel at the National Security Agency. In that role, he can make sure that the NSA's authorised intercepts of foreign leaders talking to the White House never see the light of day, no matter what they might reveal).
And in the E-ring of the Pentagon, now playing the role of chief of staff, we have Kashyap Patel. He was Nunes's right-hand man at the House Intelligence Committee, trying to help the congressman undermine the Russia investigation. Then Patel moved to the National Security Council. The undisputed congressional testimony of the NSC's Russia director, Fiona Hill, showed he fed Trump disinformation that Ukraine had monkey-wrenched the 2016 campaign on behalf of the Democrats. That spurred Trump toward a wild-goose chase – the idea that the Ukrainians had devastating dirt on both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden – that got the president impeached.
What could these three do in their new posts that their predecessors could not – or would not?
Maybe they are on a search-and-destroy mission to root out Never Trumpers at the Pentagon in the administration's final days. That's perhaps the least appalling possibility.
There's also another set of documents Trump might like to see disappear – the classified records of his multibillion-dollar arms deals with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a just-announced transaction with the United Arab Emirates. The deals include $8 billion of precision-guided munitions used in the Saudi war on Yemen, which has created one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters. Congress has voted to end the war – a vote overridden by Trump.
Six months ago, Trump fired the State Department's inspector general, who was probing the Saudi arms transactions, and forced out the inspectors general of the Pentagon and the intelligence community as well, purging his government of watchdogs who have a unique power to report wrongdoing to Congress.
Trump's new team could go on a search-and-destroy mission for intelligence records that reflect poorly on him. The possibility exists that the shredders are being fired up at the Pentagon – the way that embassies under siege destroy documents. This, of course, would be illegal.
But the strongest – though still circumstantial – explanation is that Trump wants them to help him harpoon the white whale of the Russia investigation once and for all.
Trump has purged the directorate overseeing the intelligence community, installing the highly conservative and supremely unqualified former congressman John Ratcliffe, who briefly sat with Nunes on the House intelligence committee. Ratcliffe promptly declassified documents as Trump demanded. But it was very likely Russian disinformation – a claim that Hillary Clinton concocted a scheme to smear Trump by linking him to Vladimir Putin and Russia's hacking of the 2016 election. The documents had been rejected by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee as having no basis in fact. Five weeks before Election Day, Ratcliffe backhanded this suspect file to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who then released it, though almost no one fell for it.
For four years now, Trump and his loyalists have been trying to deep-six the original sin of his administration – the fact that some of his closest aides were in cahoots with a Russian intelligence operation attacking American democracy.
With his most loyal allies now installed at the National Intelligence directorate, at the Pentagon and in a key post at the NSA, the lame-duck president is making one last push for absolution. It's worth noting that if these magical secret documents really exist, Trump could declassify them with the stroke of a Sharpie.
He would have to do it over the dead bodies of the CIA director, Gina Haspel, and the FBI director, Christopher A. Wray. If he comes for them too, you'll know why.
Trump has been a counterintelligence nightmare for his entire term, relentlessly attacking the citadels of American national security while romancing Putin and the world's worst autocrats. If the intelligence community can survive 10 more weeks of his presidency, it will be a small miracle.
* Weiner is the author of The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare, 1945-2020.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.