WASHINGTON — Two months into the Trump administration, the top jobs at the U.S. Department of Defense remain largely empty.
But supporters of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are quietly expressing hope that a top Trump aide whom they see as a roadblock for nominees will soon move on to a new role, which could speed up the nominee process nearly two months after Mattis took office.
Sources who support Mattis have grown increasingly vocal about frustrations with Mira Ricardel, a top defense voice on the Trump campaign who also served as a part of the defense transition team for the administration. Ricardel is positioned at the Office of Presidential Personnel and has been a vital part of the nominee review process, including conducting personal interviews with perspective nominees.
A number of sources, including one inside the administration, said Mattis and Ricardel have directly clashed over nominees. Two of those sources speculated that Ricardel had hoped for a Pentagon position when the transition ended, perhaps as the undersecretary of defense for policy.
But where supporters of Mattis see Ricardel as a roadblock to progress, those on the Trump team view her as a loyal soldier who is looking out for the interests of the President.
"She's extremely well respected and liked at the White House," one administration source said. "The White House thinks she's done great work in a difficult situation."
It now appears Ricardel will be moving out of the OPP position soon. The administration source said she is in line for a senior position with the Department of Commerce that deals with the national security world.
Sources from the Pentagon say that the move comes after a major clash with Mattis, with one source familiar with the discussions going so far as to say that "Mattis told the White House either Mira goes, or he walks. They blinked."
The administration source, a Trump loyalist, denied that and defended Ricardel, saying that the clashes with Mattis should be seen as a "badge of honor," as Ricardel has held the line against "politically unacceptable" candidates.
"Mattis being upset with her has absolutely nothing to do with this," the source said, adding: "She's doing that job until she can't anymore because of her nomination. … Jim Mattis has zero to do with her job prospects."
Multiple emails sent to Ricardel’s personal address asking for comment were not returned, but White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters contacted Defense News and confirmed that Ricardel is still in her position at OPP and "continues to work on her portfolio."
Ricardel spent the first two years of the George W. Bush administration as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia before spending two more years as acting assistant secretary of defense for international security policy.
She then left for industry, primarily for a nine-year stint at Boeing, including seven years as vice president of business development for strategic missile and defense systems and two as vice president for international business development related to network and space systems; her LinkedIn profile says she left Boeing in 2015 for consulting firm Federal Budget IQ, although the Trump team says she was most recently self employed.
The battle over appointments
Since President Donald Trump took office, there have been reports that Mattis has clashed with the White House team over appointees. Those who back Mattis, the only Senate-confirmed appointee at DoD, have put the blame squarely on the White House, saying the Trump team is blocking qualified nominees out of a political ideological test.
Those inside the White House, meanwhile, point out that the president has the right to pick people who share his worldview in top spots of his administration — and see no reason why they should give jobs to individuals who slammed the president over the course of the long 2016 election.
The most recent name put forth from Mattis, only to be rejected by the White House, was Anne Patterson, a retired diplomat Mattis was eyeing for undersecretary of defense for policy. Mattis reportedly is open to having individuals who signed a summer letter pledging "Never Trump" to join his team, something Trump loyalists have refused to budge on.
On the Hill, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have been split on support for Mattis’s nominees.
SASC Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reiterated a call for more nominees to be put forth, expressing concern about the lack of top officials at the Pentagon at a time of ongoing operations.
McCain said, it is up to Mattis. "That's his team, so I respect Gen. Mattis' judgment and when I heard that he wanted [Anne Patterson], it was fine with me."
Asked about internal tensions between Mattis and the White House, McCain said, "Honestly, I have very little communications with the White House." But he offered support for Mattis right to pick his people, saying "That's his team, so I respect Gen. Mattis' judgment."
But opposition from Sen. Ted Cruz apparently killed the Patterson nomination. On Tuesday, the Texas Republican told Defense News he was concerned over the fact Patterson, a career State Department official, had served under the Obama administration — setting up the specter that longtime civil servants may be barred wholesale from serving in a Trump administration, regardless of their political leanings.
Rumors that the White House is on the verge of announcing a group of DoD nominees at once have circulated for weeks, but have yet to materialize; as of now, the only nominees for the department as Heather Wilson for Air Force Secretary and John Sullivan as general counsel.
Two other nominees — Vincent Viola for secretary of the Army and Philip Bilden for secretary of the Navy — have withdrawn their nominations.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.