The ongoing war between Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the White House over staffing the Pentagon is looking very much like that small trickle of water than eventually cuts its way through a granite monolith.
A couple of days ago, Mattis lost a personnel battle. And he should have. He had nominated Anne Patterson to be undersecretary for policy, arguably the second most powerful position in the Pentagon. Mattis knew Patterson and had worked with her when he commanded CENTCOM. Knowing your subordinates and having a team loyal to you and your vision is a very important thing, especially in an organization like the Pentagon. On the negative side of the ledger, Patterson was an Obama political appointee:
Patterson retired from the State Department in December as assistant secretary for Near East affairs, the top official on the Middle East, with the highest rank, career ambassador. She also served as ambassador to Pakistan, Colombia and El Salvador.
But it was primarily her service in Egypt, as the public face of Obama’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of then-President Mohamed Morsi, that led to her rejection by the White House, officials said.
The White House hadn’t been crazy about Patterson but allowed her nomination to go forward to the Senate where it came to grief:
U.S. officials said that two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), were strongly opposed to Patterson’s nomination because she served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, a time when the Obama administration supported an elected government with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that was ultimately overthrown by the Egyptian military.
Early on Mattis had supported another Obama political appointee, Michèle Flournoy, to be he deputy secretary.
I would argue that neither of these decisions leads one to the conclusion that Mattis should be fully trusted to staff the Pentagon without a lot of watching. Championing someone who was as wrong about everything at Patterson was leaves one shaken. Likewise retaining a poltical hack from the Obama administration in a key DOD policy position.
That said, Mattis is not a stranger to Defense and he can get a lot of things done by using people already on board and seems to be willing to do this rather than accept a crew of political hacks. And he might be wearing down the White House as staffing agencies becomes less of a priority than putting out fires.
Two months into the Trump administration, the top jobs at the U.S. Department of Defense remain largely empty.
But supporters of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are quietly expressing hope that a top Trump aide whom they see as a roadblock for nominees will soon move on to a new role, which could speed up the nominee process nearly two months after Mattis took office.
Sources who support Mattis have grown increasingly vocal about frustrations with Mira Ricardel, a top defense voice on the Trump campaign who also served as a part of the defense transition team for the administration. Ricardel is positioned at the Office of Presidential Personnel and has been a vital part of the nominee review process, including conducting personal interviews with perspective nominees.
A number of sources, including one inside the administration, said Mattis and Ricardel have directly clashed over nominees. Two of those sources speculated that Ricardel had hoped for a Pentagon position when the transition ended, perhaps as the undersecretary of defense for policy.
It now appears Ricardel will be moving out of the OPP position soon. The administration source said she is in line for a senior position with the Department of Commerce that deals with the national security world.
Within a month or so you’re going to see the floodgates open at Defense and positions will be filled. The question is with whom?
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