Well, there’s good news and bad news, and it’s the same news.
The exodus of top Defense officials under Team Trump continues. In the weeks before Christmas, five senior Pentagon officials resigned their posts for unclear reasons. Now Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s chief of staff, former Army intelligence officer Eric Chewning, has delivered his own resignation.
As the article notes, these multiple departures–especially the most recent one, coming after the Iranian assassination–don’t usually occur during periods in which the nation appears to be gearing up for a military crisis.
Behind the scenes, though, Esper’s office appears to be in turmoil. A Foreign Policy report on Sunday revealed that Trump Defense Secretary Esper had cut senior Pentagon leaders out of the loop on the Suleimani assassination, and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not consulted or briefed on the operation ahead of time. “The usual approval process, the decision-making process, did not occur,” an anonymous defense official told FP.
The motivations for these departures are unclear: people may be leaving for reasons ranging from simple frustration with the chaos in Trump’s Defense Department to unwillingness to be part of an administration that is morally and functionally defective–the latter motive suggesting the old phrase “rats leaving a sinking ship.”
According to Merriam-Webster, that idiom is used in reference to people abandoning an enterprise once it seems likely to fail. The phrase has shown what the reference book calls “great linguistic tenacity,” having been in regular use for over four hundred years. Its persistence is probably attributable to the consistency of the human impulse to “bail out” when a ship–or enterprise–is going down.
In this case, the likelihood that career public servants are departing an administration with which they don’t want to be associated is a sign that a number of career people in the so-called “deep state” have scruples. The resignations send a message (not that the Trump cabal is capable of receiving or interpreting such messages) that they disagree with the decisions–and the decision-making process– of the current regime. (And what we are discovering about that process is terrifying. An Iran expert formerly with the State Department tweeted out what he is being told by those who remain in the agencies.)
These principled departures are the good news.
The bad news is that the consistent stream of resignations by sane, moral and experienced officials during Trump’s tenure–resignations that have not been limited to the Department of Defense– means that there are even fewer adults left to moderate an unhinged President and counter the assortment of religious zealots and criminals that make up his administration.
According to the Brookings Institution, as of January of 2020, turnover in the administration’s so-called “A Team”–senior positions just under cabinet secretaries–has been 80%. The Brookings article includes several charts describing the positions and identifying the individuals who left; interestingly, they count each position on the “A Team” only once. So “if multiple people hold and depart from the same position (e.g., communications director), only the initial departure is tracked/affects the turnover rate.”
In other words, turnover has actually exceeded that 80%. (The report also includes a chart showing the serial departures.)
And that turnover is calculated, obviously, for positions that have been filled. As of January 6th, Trump hadn’t even bothered to nominate candidates for 168 of the 741 key administrative positions that require Senate confirmation,
Ask anyone who runs an organization–for-profit, nonprofit or governmental–how constant staff turnover and the attendant loss of institutional memory not only hobbles the organization’s ability to perform, but hinders its ability to recruit competent replacements.
When the people who are left to run the government are ill-equipped to do so–when they are inexperienced, ignorant, delusional or beholden to special interests–all bets are off.
We are in uncharted–and very dangerous–territory.