Updated 6/18/20 at 4:30 PM EST with comment from Esper.
WASHINGTON — Kathryn Wheelbarger, a primary contact in the Pentagon for allies and partners abroad, has resigned six days after having her name pulled for the department’s No. 2 civilian intelligence role.
She becomes the second Pentagon official to resign this week under similar circumstances — with both having had nominations for new jobs reportedly scuttled by White House staffers over loyalty concerns to President Donald Trump.
Hours after the initial report by Reuters, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper released a statement praising Wheelbarger for her “wealth of experience and the utmost professionalism.”
“Her leadership in support of the National Defense Strategy is evident in the proud accomplishments of her team,” Esper said. “She is someone I got to know well over the last three years and, with sincere appreciation for her many contributions and years of service, I wish Katie the very best in what I’m sure will be a very bright future.”
Wheelbarger started in the administration as principal deputy assistant secretary for international security affairs. Since October 2018, she has served as acting assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, following the departure of Robert Karem from that role, which serves as a regular intermediary with foreign nations.
Sources from six different foreign governments have expressed concern to Defense News in the last year that Wheelbarger could exit the building, and they praised the work she had done to maintain connections with allies and partners.
In February, Wheelbarger was announced as the intended nominee to be deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
However, reports quickly emerged that her nomination was in trouble because of concerns from the White House that her views aligned less with those of the president and more with two previous bosses — former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for whom she worked as Senate Armed Services Committee policy director from January 2015 to January 2017. (Matt Donovan, another former SASC staffer under McCain, was confirmed as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness in March.)
Wheelbarger’s resignation comes two days after that of Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller. The two cases have similar echoes: Both women served for 18 months in an acting capacity in top jobs, and both had nominations for new roles announced by the White House before having them pulled back, allegedly due to concerns from staffers about their alignment with the president.
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.