President Donald Trump’s freeze of military aid for Ukraine landed this summer at a Pentagon in turmoil, led by its third acting secretary in just a few weeks — with no leader at the top with the stature to quash the move.
The leadership vacuum at the top of the Defense Department is just one element in the chain of decisions on the nearly $390 million in Ukraine aid, a freeze that set the stage for a grave political crisis for Trump after POLITICO published the first report on the holdup Aug. 28. It’s also an example of the erosion of institutional checks on the Trump administration, which has installed acting or temporary leaders in a host of crucial leadership positions.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, by contrast, had a reputation for pushing back on Trump — and when the president ordered U.S. troops withdrawn from Syria in December, overriding his commanders, Mattis rebuked him with a resignation that stunned his allies in Congress.
Trump has said he’s fine with the shortage of Senate-confirmed leaders, remarking last month that “acting gives you great flexibility that you don’t have with permanent.” But a Cabinet-level department with an acting secretary also has much weakened leverage to assert its views against those of the president’s staff, as people with experience in senior Pentagon positions noted in interviews with POLITICO.
“You’ve got a department that’s essentially leaderless when you’ve got someone who hasn’t been confirmed,” said former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Republican ex-senator who led the department during the Obama administration. “When you don’t have the validity inside and outside the institution that comes with a full-blown leader who’s been through confirmation and been voted on by the United States Senate, what can happen is the White House can effectively take control.”
The revolving door atop the Pentagon began when Mattis quit in December, writing a resignation letter that expressed divisions with Trump on issues including “treating allies with respect” and being “resolute and unambiguous” against aggression by Russia. The trend continued with the abrupt departure in June of acting Secretary Pat Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who faced questions about domestic violence in his family, and brief reigns in the top Pentagon job, in acting capacities, by former Army Secretary Mark Esper and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.
Spencer was still acting defense secretary on July 18, on or about the date when Trump directed his staff to tell the Pentagon and the State Department to hold back the assistance for Ukraine, according to multiplenews reports. A week later, when Trump held his now-disputed phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Esper had finally been confirmed by the Senate as the permanent defense chief — though just two days earlier.
“These things make it harder for the system to work as it was intended to, for key national security officials to weigh in to make sure decisions being made really reflect our national security interests,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who oversaw the military assistance program to Ukraine as a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration.
Having not just one acting secretary but three in a row “introduces an element of complete uncertainty,” Hagel added. “During those times when Shanahan was in limbo, and then the questions over who would replace him, who would be the acting, for how long — you get this guessing game and it really hurts the department.”
Defense Department spokespeople didn’t respond to requests for information about what directions the Pentagon received from the White House or its Office of Management and Budget in mid-July, or whether the order to freeze the aid even crossed Spencer’s desk. The freeze affected the $250 million portion of the military aid package, which included funds for weapons like sniper rifles and launchers for rocket-propelled grenades, according to a June Pentagon statement, as well as night-vision gear, encrypted radios, and sensors to detect incoming artillery barrages and electronic warfare intrusions.
The assistance was the latest increment in a years-long effort to help the Ukrainian government combat Russian-backed separatists and deter Russian aggression. Congress stepped up military support to Ukraine with bipartisan legislation in 2014 after Russia annexed the country’s Crimea region.
The Trump administration relented earlier this month, agreeing to release the new Ukraine money plus $140 million in security assistance through the State Department. But that happened only after Democrats had begun accusing Trump of using the money as leverage to push the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family, an issue that this week led the House to start impeachment proceedings against the president.
Trump has offered shifting explanations for withholding the money, saying either that he was concerned about corruption in Ukraine or wanted other European countries to contribute more assistance to Kiev. The White House’s readout of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky doesn’t explicitly mention the $390 million — although it says Trump, who requested help with a potential investigation of Biden, stressed that the U.S. has devoted “a lot of effort and a lot of time” to assisting Ukraine.
Slotkin said the Ukrainians are in dire need of the military help.
“They still have quite a hot war going in Ukraine — they’ve lost 13,000 people — and when you withhold assistance or threaten to withhold assistance, that is a major pressure move,” she said. “Whether it’s implicit or explicit, the result would be the same — the Ukrainian government is waiting with bated breath for that assistance. I know because when I worked on this, they would be calling us all the time checking on it.”
After Esper won confirmation July 23, the Pentagon weighed in with the White House in favor of continuing the Ukraine aid, but it wasn’t until weeks later, in September, that the White House agreed to release the funds. So it’s not clear that objections from an acting secretary at an earlier point would have made a difference, people familiar with the department’s inner workings said — nor that placeholder Pentagon chief Spencer would have appreciated the significance of the freeze request.
Spencer spent eight days as acting defense secretary while Esper awaited confirmation — and, coming from the Navy for such a brief stint, “would not have been deep in the Ukraine issue,” said one former senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the possible implications of a decision he wasn’t involved in.
“It’s not even clear that this directive would have percolated up to the SECDEF’s office, but had it done so, I’m not sure Spencer would have taken any particular note of it, because he would not have been fully read into Ukraine, or the timing of Zelensky taking office and speaking soon to Trump,” the former official said.
“It just wouldn’t have rung a bell with him the way it would have with someone like Mattis,” the former official suggested.
Even the advice of permanent Pentagon leadership might not have swayed the White House on the Ukraine freeze, said the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed of Rhode Island. Trump and his advisers “weren’t listening to military advice about this decision,” Reed said. “My sense is that this was not a diplomatic, strategic, military decision in any way, shape or form.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine