WASHINGTON — A Trump loyalist who was recently appointed as Pentagon chief of staff is controlling the Biden transition's team access to Pentagon officials, even blocking some career officials and experts from giving information about key defense issues to the transition team and telling political appointees to take the lead instead, say two current and two former U.S. officials.
In some instances, the chief of staff, Kash Patel, who was assigned to the Pentagon after last month's election, has recast policy descriptions to include content that reflects favorably on Trump's policies before the information is shared with the Biden transition, two of the officials said.
"He told everybody we're not going to cooperate with the transition team," one of the former officials said of Patel, and he has "put a lot of restrictions on it."
Patel made it clear early in the process that senior political officials would attend transition team meetings and briefings dealing with significant policy issues, the officials said, which is having a chilling effect on the information being shared with the Biden team.
While mundane issues and requests for information from the Biden team are tasked out to Pentagon policy experts, the two current officials and one former official said some significant or time-sensitive policies — such as those involving Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea — are being handled by political appointees, some of whom Trump recently installed, or not answered at all.
Historically, career civilians and military officials prepare many of the briefing documents and information during a transition, according to officials who have participated in past transitions.
Most requests for information from the Biden transition team go to Tom Muir, director of Washington Headquarters Services and senior civilian transition director, a current official said. Muir then briefs Patel, who weighs in on requests for interviews and which staffers will handle requests for information.
Some briefing documents have gone through Patel before going to the transition team, and he has put a political spin on some information and completely withheld it in other cases, according to the current and former officials.
"This has been more politicized than previous transitions," one official said. "Patel is controlling the information flow."
In some cases, according to the two current officials, the career officials have been completely cut out of the process, with political appointees taking the lead rather than the subject matter experts who handle the issues.
Pentagon officials have provided the Biden Agency Review Team (ART) with some briefing documents, according to a senior defense official and one of the former defense officials. In past years transition teams received binders, but this year the Pentagon has delivered iPads with information, the officials said.
In a statement released after this story first posted, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller wrote, “The DoD and its transition leadership are fully cooperating with the Biden transition team, placing national security and the protection of the American people at the forefront of any and all discussions.”
Last week, a senior defense official said that Patel was leading the transition efforts for the Pentagon, just two weeks after Patel arrived in the Pentagon after being named chief of staff to acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller.
Three other Trump loyalists have also taken over powerful Pentagon positions since the Nov. 3 election, including retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, who is now performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for policy; Ezra Cohen-Watnick, now the acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security; and retired Army Col. Doug Macgregor, now senior adviser to Acting Secretary Miller.
Members of the Biden ART have asked to speak with various political appointees, career civilians, and military officials, a defense official said. A senior defense official said that “Kash has not been selecting individuals to do meetings,” but the official did acknowledge that the Pentagon’s transition team does add more people to meetings “to make sure we have the appropriate people there.” The official said it’s to ensure they provide as much information as possible.
Patel has mandated that requests from the transition team to speak with career civilians or military officials be approved by either Patel or Muir, also a political appointee, before they can proceed, according to two current U.S. officials. So far most requests have been approved, but the officials say that they have not responded to all requests.
In a statement, a Pentagon spokesperson said, “We continue to work closely with the DoD ART and other Agency Review Teams to schedule requested by-name interviews of DoD leadership, both political appointees and career civil servants. We have provided thousands of pages of documents, including classified materials, for their review and follow-on questions, in accordance with statute, policies, and the Memorandum of Understanding between the White House and the Biden-Harris Transition Team — and we will be providing more as appropriate.”
A senior defense official said the Pentagon’s transition team facilitated 21 interviews this week and has 47 more scheduled for next week, including meetings with the regional combatant commanders and the chiefs of the military services. The official said they had five meetings about Covid-19 this week, and had other meetings about personnel and readiness and other policy issues. The Pentagon has provided the Biden transition team with more than 1,500 pages of information via Microsoft tablets, the official said.
The Biden transition team declined to comment.
Patel, who was named as Pentagon chief of staff on Nov. 10, formerly worked in the Trump administration at the National Security Council. He also served as an aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who worked on the contentious House investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.