Trump loyalist pushed out of White House now leading a shake-up at the Pentagon
A controversial former White House official is helping the Trump administration use its waning days to carry out a contentious reorganization that gives the Pentagon’s civilian leadership greater control over U.S. Special Operations Command.
The overhaul comes four years after Congress directed the Pentagon to give civilians more authority over special operations forces, and shortly after President Trump appointed Christopher Miller to replace Mark Esper, who was fired by tweet on Nov. 9. A retired Special Forces colonel, Miller had worked to revamp civilian oversight over special operations forces in a previous Pentagon job.
A driving force behind the current initiative is Ezra Cohen, a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer who has held several national security positions during the Trump administration and is now the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, or SO/LIC.
The appointment of Cohen as the acting assistant secretary was a major factor behind the decision to implement the congressional legislation. “Ezra was critical,” said a senior Pentagon official. “We needed fresh eyes and we needed fresh energy.” Miller and Cohen had a “melding of the minds” when it came to the need to make the changes before the end of the Trump administration, the senior Pentagon official said.
Cohen, who used to go by Cohen-Watnick, was hired in early 2017 for a spot on the National Security Council staff by Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. He was fired in August 2017 by Flynn’s successor, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.
Cohen’s name showed up again amid allegations made by the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, who claimed that the Obama administration had spied on the Trump campaign. Cohen was one of Nunes’s sources for his claim, according to the New York Times.
In May, Trump appointed Cohen as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, his third appointee job in the administration. From there he was promoted to become the acting assistant secretary of defense for SO/LIC, a position that Miller announced last week he was putting on a par with the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
During a Nov. 18 trip to Fort Bragg, N.C., Miller stated that he was finally implementing Section 922 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. That section puts the assistant secretary of special operations in the chain of command of special operations forces — between the four-star U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the defense secretary — when it comes to manning, training and equipping the force, but not for operations.
If carried to its logical conclusion, this would give the assistant secretary’s office control over several areas, such as relations with Congress and the purchase of weapons, that are currently under the purview of SOCOM, which is headquartered in Tampa.
But SOCOM commander Army Gen. Richard Clarke, supported by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley, is resisting these efforts and will likely seek to dilute them in the coming weeks, according to current and former Pentagon officials.
My theory [is] that Ezra Cohen is the most powerful person in the building at this point in time,” said a Pentagon official. But a senior OSD official described as “ridiculous” the notion that the 34-year-old Cohen wielded more power than Miller, Milley or numerous other senior figures in the department.