When Christopher Miller, the recently installed acting defence secretary, appealed to his new employees to follow orders, he turned not to the constitution for inspiration but to Donald Trump’s favourite football coach.
“Do your job,” he wrote, quoting Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots leader and an effusive Trump supporter.
The missive was contained in Mr Miller’s second official letter to the defence department, sent after he was hastily installed by Mr Trump. His elevation came as the president appointed a number of loyalists to other senior Pentagon roles, to the consternation of many in the department.
Critics say the solicitous reference reveals the pernicious shadow that Mr Trump is casting over the nation’s national security institutions as he refuses to concede defeat in the presidential race. Rather than paving the way for a smooth transfer of power to Joe Biden, the president is instead countenancing last-minute foreign policy moves that some fear are a threat to national security.
“Right now their hair is on fire and they’re trying to work out how to stop [Mr Trump],” said a former senior Pentagon official of the mood among national security career officials.
The Pentagon and US intelligence agencies have experienced nearly four years of upheaval that started on Mr Trump’s first day in office, when he visited CIA headquarters. The 2017 visit was ostensibly a peace offering from the new president to the agency, which he had earlier accused of behaving like “Nazi Germany”. He ended up delivering a partisan diatribe.
National security insiders and officials say Mr Trump’s post-election sackings and policy changes have prompted career officials to fight one final 60-day rearguard action to protect the country’s vital defence and intelligence infrastructure from a flurry of final directives. But now they have little of the outside support of Republicans in the foreign policy establishment that they historically relied upon.
“People are being fired right and left; and if you’re not fired you’re pushed over into a corner,” said Paul Gebhard, a former special assistant to the secretary of defence who worked on the transition to the George W Bush administration in 2000.
He said the spate of sackings at the Pentagon meant it was left to the uniformed military, led by General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and Mr Trump’s top military adviser, to “mind the store”.
Republican aides and former officials argue that while it would be an extremely radical move to sack Gen Milley — who is only 16 months into a four-year term — that he, along with CIA director Gina Haspel and FBI director Christopher Wray, could still face the chopping block.
“He has a post-election firing list that was drawn up months ago,” said a senior Republican congressional aide.
Another former official said Mr Trump demanded “one thousand per cent” loyalty. On Tuesday, the president fired the top election security official after he announced the election had been secure.
Mr Trump is also forcing through a series of foreign policy moves unpopular with some in his own party, from mass troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan, to considering sanctions on Houthis in Yemen, which could exacerbate a humanitarian crisis and endanger the peace process.
He also briefly flirted with bombing nuclear facilities in Iran last week, according to US media reports, while some officials feared he might countenance deploying troops on to the streets in the event of post-election protests.
Kori Schake, an expert in civil-military relations at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argued that the military was probably safe from such interference.
“If the president wanted a military leader to consent to break their oath to the constitution to try to keep him in power, he would probably have to fire the top thousand of them before he could find one willing to do that,” she said. US institutions have “proven themselves strong enough to withstand those grasping to discredit them”, she added.
While Gen Milley and military commanders cannot disobey a legal order, Ms Schake noted that civilian control of the military also resides with Congress, even if Mr Trump and his acolytes “grab on to any life preserver they think can keep their heads above water as they lose power”.
The most notable criticism from Congress thus far has come from Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, who this week publicly opposed Mr Trump’s troop reductions.
Mr McConnell has refused to recognise Mr Biden’s victory but nonetheless promised an “orderly transfer” of power. Last week, he met Ms Haspel as speculation swirled that she might be ousted, in what one former official interpreted as a signal of support.
Dov Zakheim, the former undersecretary for defence during the George W Bush administration, said Mr McConnell was “walking through a minefield”, adding: “He seems to be much more willing to confront the president on national security issues than on domestic issues.”
But others insist that any opposition from the likes of Mr McConnell should be seen in a narrow context. “The pushback you’re seeing [from Republicans] is very specific to Afghanistan,” argued the Republican aide.
Others point out the military has become adept at “slow-rolling” Mr Trump and that any troop withdrawals will probably be done in a way that is reversible once Mr Biden takes office.
“The military is basically very good at stalling when they want to stall,” said Mr Zakheim, adding they could cite logistical delays involved in shifting equipment and handing over bases to eke out the timeline and potentially relocate troops to a nearby country rather than back to the US.
A defence official told the Financial Times that the weather was “challenging” in Afghanistan at this time of year, a factor that could complicate the timeline for transport of some large-scale equipment.
But Mr Zakheim said that Trump stalwarts Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, and national security adviser Robert O’Brien remained in charge of policy, putting “a huge burden” on Gen Milley when it came to implementation.
Gen Milley has been at pains to stress his commitment to the constitution, particularly after he apologised for appearing alongside Mr Trump in combat fatigues amid the heavy-handed treatment of anti-racism protesters this summer.
The four-star army general issued a further clarion call last week in remarks delivered while standing alongside Mr Miller.
“We do not take an oath to a king or queen, a tyrant or dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual,” said Gen Milley, hewing to a theme his spokesperson said he has delivered in public “for decade or more”.
One US official said it was “far-fetched” to think Gen Milley could be among those fired simply because he reaffirmed longstanding principles but that the timing of his comments made him seem like “a nail that’s sticking out that needs a hammer blow”.
Others are braced for another string of firings or policy changes.
“It’s pretty clear that Miller will do Trump’s bidding and he has got this Praetorian Guard of Trumpists all around him,” said the first former senior Pentagon official, adding the president has “enormous power and enormous leeway” when it comes to foreign affairs.
“There are many more shoes to drop.”
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