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 had feuded with Esper and 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 in an interview, referring to the Department of Defense. “This was not the case. They were the best qualified. We were doing the right thing.”
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 endorse the nominations and 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.
Trump’s abrupt firing of Esper and the installation of a group of hard-line loyalists into senior jobs at the Pentagon elevated officials who had pushed for more aggressive actions against Iran and for an imminent withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan over the objections of the military.
Trump also named one of those loyalists, Michael Ellis, to be general counsel at the National Security Agency, over the objections of the agency’s director, Gen. Paul Nakasone. 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.
Trump, in the last tumultuous months of his presidency, had grown sour on both Esper and Milley, whom he viewed as too open to the views of the movement for change that swept the country after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year.
When Milley in June apologized for joining Trump in his photo-op walk across Lafayette Square that had been emptied of protesters by law enforcement in riot gear using tear gas, Trump derided his top general’s apology to aides.
Then, when Esper and Milley, also in June, floated a plan to rename 10 Army bases that honored Confederate generals, Trump smacked them down in a string of Twitter messages, writing that “my administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
And after Esper and Milley both opposed Trump’s expressed wishes to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops on U.S. streets to battle supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump made clear to aides that he was unhappy with both men. He was talked out of firing Esper last summer out of concerns of injecting the appearance of even more instability into an already tumultuous administration. But Nov. 9, days after he lost the election, Trump made good on his wishes and replaced his defense secretary.
Amid these hectic personnel changes and the unpredictability of a department led by Christopher Miller, an inexperienced acting defense secretary, 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, so the Pentagon decided to submit their names after the new Congress took office in January.
“It was about timing considerations, not that they were women,” Miller, who served as acting defense secretary for nearly three months, said in an interview.
Had Trump won reelection, officials said, Milley would most likely have sent the recommendations to the White House for approval, hoping for the best. But the general and Esper thought the personnel choices faced a smoother selection process under a new Biden administration.
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.
Col. Dave Butler, Milley’s spokesperson, declined to comment.
Van Ovost is already a four-star officer, leading the Air Force’s Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. A seasoned commander and Air Force Academy graduate, Van Ovost’s pick as head of the multi-service Transportation Command, also located at Scott Air Force Base, played to her strengths, officials said.
Richardson is the three-star commander of the Army component of the Pentagon’s Northern Command, based in San Antonio, which is playing an important role in providing military assistance to FEMA’s COVID vaccination program.
“Very capable, great team builder,” Anthony Ierardi, a retired commander of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, where Richardson was a subordinate, said in an email. “Gets things done.”