WASHINGTON – Last fall, the Pentagon's most senior leaders agreed that two top generals should be promoted to elite, four-star commands.
For then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the tricky part was that both of the accomplished officers were women. In 2020 America under President Donald Trump, the two Pentagon leaders feared that any candidates other than white men for jobs mostly held by white men might run into turmoil once their nominations got to the White House.
Esper and Milley worried that if they even raised their names — Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force and Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army — the Trump White House would replace them with their own candidates before leaving office.
So the Pentagon officials agreed on an unusual strategy: They held back their recommendations until after the November elections, betting that if Joe Biden won, he and his aides would be more supportive of the Pentagon picks than Trump, who has a history of disparaging women. They stuck to the plan even after Trump fired Esper six days after the election.
"They were chosen because they were the best officers for the jobs, and I didn't want their promotions derailed because someone in the Trump White House saw that I recommended them or thought DOD was playing politics," Esper said, referring to the Department of Defense.
The strategy may soon pay off. In the next few weeks, Esper's successor, Lloyd Austin, and Milley are expected to send the delayed recommendations to the White House, where officials are expected to formally submit them to the Senate for approval.
The story of the two officers' unusual path to promotion — Van Ovost to head Transportation Command, which oversees the military's global transportation network; and Richardson to head Southern Command, which oversees military activities in Latin America — underscores the uncertainty clouding the final weeks of the Trump administration and the unorthodox steps that senior officials took to shield the Defense Department from actions they believed could jeopardize policy and personnel.
Pentagon officials say Esper and Milley had good reason to worry, including Trump's abrupt firing of Esper and the installation of a group of hard-line loyalists into senior jobs at the Pentagon. Trump named one of those loyalists, Michael Ellis, to be general counsel at the National Security Agency, over the objections of the agency's director. The White House rushed to appoint several Trump loyalists to Pentagon advisory boards, the governing boards of military service academies and other positions that could outlast the Trump administration.
Amid these personnel changes and the unpredictability of a department led by Christopher Miller, Esper and Milley decided to hold back some top nominees, including Van Ovost and Richardson, until Trump and his aides left office.
Some former Trump administration officials disputed the notion that the nominations were delayed because of any White House animus toward female candidates. The Senate was unlikely to have time to consider any year-end nominations, the officials said.
Biden and Austin could always pick other candidates, but Esper and Milley were confident the new team would endorse their selections, who had been vetted and evaluated over several months.