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Trump loyalists given top Pentagon roles after several officials resign following Esper's ouster

The shake-up has prompted Democrats to raise national security concerns as President-elect Joe Biden begins his transition.
Image: U.S. President Trump arrives to board Air Force One for travel to a campaign rally from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland
President Donald Trump boards Air Force One on Oct. 13.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters file

Several loyalists to President Donald Trump were promoted to top roles in the Defense Department on Tuesday after officials resigned following the unceremonious ouster of Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The Pentagon confirmed the resignations of the department's top officials for policy and intelligence in a statement. The resignations include those of James Anderson, the acting undersecretary for policy; Joseph Kernan, the undersecretary for intelligence; and Jen Stewart, Esper's chief of staff. The release said Kernan's resignation had been "planned for several months."

Retired Army Gen. Anthony Tata, a frequent Fox News guest, will replace Anderson. Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who works in the Defense Department and was an aide to the disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn, will replace Kernan. Kash Patel, a former National Security Council official and former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who worked on the contentious House investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, will replace Stewart.

Trump announced Monday that he had fired Esper as defense secretary and said Christopher Miller, who headed the counterterrorism center, would serve as acting secretary. Esper's ouster was Trump's first personnel move since he lost the election, and it has prompted Democrats to raise national security concerns as President-elect Joe Biden begins his transition.

In a statement, Miller thanked Anderson, Kernan and Stewart "for their service to the nation and the department."

"Over their careers each has contributed greatly to the national defense and the future of the Department of Defense. We wish them the best in their next endeavors," he said.

NBC News reported last week that Esper had prepared a letter of resignation, after previously reporting that Esper has long been at odds with Trump. The two disagreed, for example, about the use of active-duty troops to respond to protests across the country this summer.

Some of the officials promoted Tuesday are also seen as controversial picks.

Media reports linked Patel to efforts to discredit the Russian investigation and to discredit questions about whether there were ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, according to The Associated Press.

Trump nominated Tata this year to be the undersecretary for policy, but he quickly withdrew his name over bipartisan concerns from lawmakers. Tata expressed Islamophobic views publicly, and in 2018 he called former President Barack Obama a "terrorist leader" on Twitter. Tata in addition claimed that the Iran nuclear deal came about because of Obama's "Islamic roots" and that it was an attempt "to help Iranians and the greater Islamic state crush Israel."

He apologized and was placed in a role at the Pentagon that did not need Senate approval. His promotion to lead the Pentagon's policy shop while having an "acting" title circumvents the need for Senate approval.

Courtney Kube contributed.