WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top policy official has been pushed out of the department, potentially as part of the fallout from the Ukraine military aid issue at the center of the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, is departing at the end of the month ― a move that leaves yet another significant vacancy at the top of the Pentagon’s senior civilian leadership. In his resignation letter to Trump on Wednesday, Rood said he was told the president asked that he resign.
“It’s my understanding from [Defense] Secretary [Mark] Esper that you requested my resignation,” Rood said in the letter, adding that he serves at the president’s pleasure, “and therefore, as you have requested, I am providing my resignation effective February 28, 2020.”
Less than an hour before the letter was made public, Trump confirmed the news first reported by CNN: “I would like to thank John Rood for his service to our Country, and wish him well in his future endeavors!” Trump tweeted.
Rood was not only a main Pentagon contact for international partners and allies, but a top figure in implementing the administration’s capstone National Defense Strategy, meant to guide major defense budgeting and policy decisions since its release in 2018. He leaves without a permanent deputy, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities James Anderson has been performing the duties of Rood’s deputy since David Trachtenberg retired in July.
In an already understaffed policy directorate, Anderson is set to take over Rood’s responsibilities until Trump selects a replacement and the Senate confirms that person. That’s likely to tilt the civilian-military balance in favor of the military’s uniformed officers.
“This is really bad for civilian-military relations,” one former senior defense official said of Rood’s ouster. “You might as well put up a sign that says the Joint Staff will be running things until further notice.”
Rood had become a source of frustration among Pentagon officials, according to congressional sources and a Foreign Policy article two months ago. FP cited current and former administration officials to report that Rood was responsible for a toxic work environment ― and that he was a “major contributor to the departures and the Pentagon’s struggle to fill the empty posts.”
That former official said despite Rood’s reputation as a micromanager who was abusive to staff, it was plausible Trump targeted Rood for his role in Washington’s impeachment drama. Trump has, in recent weeks, ousted key impeachment witnesses: Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who had been the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council.
“Whatever the management deficiencies, I don’t think that’s what’s at issue,” the former official said of Rood’s forced resignation. “The president is on a revenge tour.”
Rood had certified that Ukraine was making efforts to reform its internal politics, a condition on its receiving $250 million in military aid. The impeachment inquiry alleged the president temporarily withheld that aid in exchange for Ukraine announcing an investigation into his political rivals, though the president and his defenders argued he had been concerned about Ukrainian corruption.
During a Dec. 4 press roundtable, Rood was repeatedly asked about whether Ukraine was meeting its reform goals and should continue to receive military aid.
“We do believe the Ukrainians have made progress in meeting their defense reform goals and made progress in working on corruption,” Rood said at the time. “There is more work to be done. Significant work to be done. All I can say is that’s what we’ve been consistent in saying in our public comments and in our written correspondence with the Congress and others.”
Earlier this month, the New York Post reported that Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, was having her nomination pulled for the full comptroller job over concerns expressed about the Ukraine funding being blocked. However, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., whose committee handles nominations for top DoD jobs, has since expressed his belief that the nomination was still on.
The Senate confirmed Rood, a former vice president for international sales at Lockheed Martin, in January, 2018. He is only the most recent in a series of high-level civilian exits, after Esper’s chief of staff, Eric Chewning; senior adviser for international cooperation Tina Kaidanow; Asia policy chief Randall Schriver, and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, among others.
Esper, in a statement Wednesday, thanked Rood for his service to the department.
“John has played a critical role on a wide range of DoD issues including modernizing our nuclear deterrence capability, efforts to increase burden sharing by our NATO allies, our Missile Defense Review and implementing the National Defense Strategy," Esper said. "I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
Meghann Myers, of Military Times, contributed to this report.
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.