What Does High-Ranking Shake-Up At The Pentagon Mean For National Security?
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The timing of all this raises questions and concerns, questions about the president's motivations and concern over what all this turnover means for the country's national security. David Ignatius of The Washington Post has been talking to his sources in the national security and intelligence community and joins us now.
DAVID IGNATIUS: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Let's start with Defense Secretary Mark Esper. You write that his firing by tweet on Monday stunned the military leadership at a time when they were craving stability. We know that back in June, Trump and Esper clashed over the use of troops to handle racial justice protests. Is that the only reason Trump fired him, or was there more to it?
IGNATIUS: I think there's more to it. There are other instances which did not come to light in which Esper had disagreed with the president. Most notably, Esper had strongly opposed the declassification and release of information that would support the president's arguments, he thinks, that the Russia investigation began with a hoax, has been concocted all along. You remember back in September, there was material that was released to Lindsey Graham and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Trump supporters, led by the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, wanted a lot more declassified, and Esper strongly opposed it. This went to a fiery White House meeting before the election.
In the end, surprisingly to me, a strong advocate for not declassifying the additional information was Attorney General William Barr, who sided with the CIA director and with the military. Esper wrote a very angry letter to Ratcliffe protesting this. And I - that's a factor in the president's decision to get rid of him.
SHAPIRO: Just take a step back because all of this chaos in the middle of a presidential transition when the sitting president denies that he lost the election is leading people to speculate about doomsday scenarios. You're saying it all comes down to the president claiming he had nothing to do with Russia and that the investigation was groundless.
IGNATIUS: So I think there are several possible explanations. But one of them certainly is a rearguard action still fighting the battle of 2016. This has been an obsession for Trump since the Russia investigation began. There are a couple others I should mention. It may be that this housecleaning at the Pentagon is just an act of presidential pique. He's furious. He wants to make news again. He wants to get rid of people he thinks are disloyal. It's also possible he wants in people who will accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria. That's something the president would love to deliver for legacy reasons. But I think this relitigation of 2016 is a major part of it.
SHAPIRO: Now, you're saying that the attorney general and others pushed back hard against the declassification of this Russia intelligence. What's at stake? Why is this so important? What would the harm be if this were declassified?
IGNATIUS: The argument that was made by Secretary of Defense Esper, by the CIA director, Gina Haspel, and by the head of the National Security Agency, General Nakasone, is that the release of this information would disclose sources and methods to the Russians that would put U.S. intelligence collection at great risk. And Secretary Esper said specifically in his letter to DNI Ratcliffe that it would put U.S. troops around the world in harm's way because of the revelation of some key collection techniques.
SHAPIRO: What do you make of the people that President Trump is putting in these important national security positions?
IGNATIUS: Well, these are the most ferociously loyal - committed to Trump the person, Trumpism as an ideology - in the government. These are people who came off the staff, many of them of Representative Devin Nunes, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, the most die-hard critic of the Russian investigation. So these are the shock troops, if you will, the most loyal.
SHAPIRO: Now, I have to ask you about the worst-case scenario, which is the speculation that Donald Trump is putting loyalists in these key positions in the national security, defense, intelligence communities in order to secure his hold on power after losing an election. Do your sources think that's a possibility?
IGNATIUS: Well, they don't rule anything out. I think they would stress - and from my reporting, I would stress - that the uniformed military itself, the men and women in our armed forces, are led by somebody in Chairman of Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley who has made it clear emphatically that he swore an oath to the Constitution, not to this or any individual president and that he understands his responsibilities to keep the military out of politics. So I think there's very broad understanding in the military that they do not want to be used by Trump in any last-ditch effort to hold onto power.
SHAPIRO: Whether this is fundamentally about Russia or holding onto power or something else, what's the overall effect of having this much chaos in a national security apparatus that has already been so challenged during this presidency?
IGNATIUS: The overall effect is terrible. This is a period historically, the transition between presidencies, when the United States is vulnerable. We're going from one group of leaders, one group of people who are briefed on all the classified information to, in theory, another. And it's a time when our adversaries around the world can take advantage of some disorientation. So people in the Pentagon that I've talked to the last couple days feel especially angry that at a time when they're trying to worry about our country's vulnerabilities, they have this additional political chaos to deal with. That really upset people.
SHAPIRO: That's David Ignatius of The Washington Post.
Thank you very much.
IGNATIUS: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.