One week ago, President Trump fired his defense secretary, Mark Esper, and quickly installed Christopher Miller, a relatively low-profile counterterrorism official, in the role on an acting basis. Trump then shifted key loyalists into other senior Department of Defense jobs.
All of these moves are happening as a transition on national security issues to President-elect Joe Biden that should be underway is stalled.
"It's not good news ... and I think everybody knows that," said Chuck Hagel, a Republican who was defense secretary from 2013 to 2015 under President Barack Obama.
Hagel said the country's current circumstances – a pandemic, a struggling economy, a divided country and government paralysis – mean the new administration needs a smooth transition more than ever.
"They need access to all of our government. And they need it because it's in the interest of their planning, of their valuations, of their judgments on what's going on, what are the threats," he told NPR's All Things Considered. "And so, when you take out senior members of one of the most important Cabinet agencies in government, that's a problem, because it hits decision-making processes. ... It's a whole of government issue. Our national security is not just about the Defense Department, but Homeland Security, our intelligence agencies, the State Department."
Hagel reiterated that the day-to-day work of the military won't be disrupted during the transition. And he said he has high confidence in senior military commanders, such as Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But he noted that ultimate control of the U.S. armed forces resides with civilians — starting with the president as commander in chief.
As a result, Hagel said, the military "could very well be put in a very tough situation and some pretty delicate spots here in the next 60 days. For example, if they're given an order to attack an Iranian ship in the Persian Gulf ... that would be a problem."
Before he was defense secretary, Hagel was a U.S. senator from Nebraska for 12 years. He said he has talked to some former colleagues — Republican senators who, like the president, have not acknowledged Biden as president-elect. The Associated Press and other news organizations called the race for Biden more than a week ago after it became clear Trump no longer had a path to victory.
"I remind them that their responsibility is a higher responsibility to this country than loyalty to a party or a president," he said. "Some say, 'We know, but we want to give the president a little time.' "
Hagel noted that one current senator from Nebraska, Republican Ben Sasse, is among those who have congratulated Biden. But Hagel said he thinks he knows why others have hesitated: the fact that Trump received more than 70 million votes.
"There's a base out there that's going to probably remain. Those are constituencies of these senators and congressmen. I get that," Hagel said.
"But at some point, you've got to have a North Star here. At some point, you've got to put your country first," he continued. "And these people understand the threats to this country, and they're hurting our country when they don't step forward and say, no, we know what the facts are, the judgments are, the certifications have been made. It's time now to move on."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It has been one week exactly since President Trump fired his defense secretary. The news came, as has so much news during the Trump administration, by presidential tweet. Quote, "Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service." Well, by that afternoon - again, this is just last Monday - Esper was cleaning out his desk. And Christopher Miller, a relatively low-profile counterterrorism official, had showed up at the Pentagon ready to move into the office having been named acting secretary of defense. Well, my next guest knows that office well, having occupied it himself.
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, welcome.
CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you.
KELLY: You know, there's no precedent I can think of for sacking a defense secretary during a transition or for then installing key loyalists in other senior DOD jobs, as President Trump also did last week. What is the impact on the transition, specifically on the national security transition, as you see it?
HAGEL: Well, it's not good news to start with, and I think everybody understands that. But let's look at the landscape here. This nation, the world, is dealing with a raging health pandemic. We have an economy and a society that is very much locked down, people out of work. We've got a still-divided country. And that results in a paralysis in government. So if that's what you're dealing with - and we've got a new president that's going to occupy the White House in 60 days and have to lead this country, they need access to all of our government. And they need it because it's in the interest of their planning, of their evaluations, of their judgments on what's going on, what are the threats. And so when you take out senior members of one of the most important cabinet agencies in government, that's a problem because it hits decision-making processes, like I said, threats. It's a whole of government issue. Our national security is not just about the Defense Department - Homeland Security, our intelligence agencies, the State Department.
KELLY: By way of reassuring people just a little bit, in terms of actual impact on Pentagon operations, I mean, it goes without saying the work churns on. Troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan - that carries on, yes?
HAGEL: Yes. Yes, it (inaudible).
KELLY: I want to remind people listening that before you were defense secretary, you served a dozen years in the U.S. Senate as Republican senator from Nebraska. What do you say to your fellow GOP senators who have not acknowledged Joe Biden as president-elect?
HAGEL: Well, some say, we know, but we want to give the president a little time. My Nebraska senator, Ben Sasse, has said it pretty clearly. It's time to move on. And he congratulated President-elect Biden. Other Republicans have hesitated, and I suspect it's because they're afraid of the fact that President Trump got 72 million votes. There's a base out there that's going to probably remain. Those are constituencies of these senators and congressmen. I get that. But at some point, you've got to have a North Star here. At some point, you've got to put your country first. And these people understand the threats to this country. And they're hurting our country when they don't step forward and say, no, we know what the facts are, the judgments are. The certifications have been made. It's time now to move on.
KELLY: Does it discourage you as you think about the future of what these coming months may hold in Washington - an ability to get things done in a nonpartisan manner - does it discourage you when you think about the future of your party?
HAGEL: Well, it does, but I'm an optimist. I've always been an optimist. I'm a realist, too. And I understand the bitterness, the disappointment, the hurt. I get all that because of the election. What I'm hopeful of is that we can move past this once we get President Biden taking office, starting to reach out to Mitch McConnell and the Republicans and work together on common issues. I mean, there are so many things this country needs that would be both in the interest of Republicans and Democrats. They can both take credit, so I'm hopeful about that. But I'm concerned, very concerned.
KELLY: Secretary Hagel, thank you.
HAGEL: Thank you.
KELLY: He is former Republican senator and served as defense secretary of the United States from 2013 to 2015. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.