- John McEntee spearheaded a 2020 effort to bring troops home from conflicts
- He drafted a directive without using the usual policy process or legal advice
- The episode is detailed in a new book by ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl
‘This doesn’t look right,’ said retired Lt. Gen Keith Kellogg, national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, as he looked at the military directive ordering U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and Somalia.
Gen Mark Milley, the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Donald Trump‘s top military adviser, could not hide his disbelief during the meeting in late 2020.
‘You’re telling me that thing is forged?’ he said ‘That’s a forged piece of paper directing a military operation by the president of the United States?’
The extraordinary moment is revealed in a new book, ‘Tired of Winning: Donald Trump and the End of the Grand Old Party’, by ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent Jonathan Karl.
It describes how a 30-year-old aide led a chaotic effort to bring home American troops.
And it sets out the horror of seasoned officials as they realized Trump and his loyalists had sidestepped the usual policy process, with its lawyerly checks and balances, in an effort to reshape the nation’s military posture.
The young aide was John McEntee, a former college quarterback who began working for Trump at the age of 25 as his ‘body guy,’ carrying around the presidential candidate’s bags and relaying messages.
He had been fired in 2018 when a background check turned up a gambling habit that was so serious it was seen as a potential national security risk.
But a change of White House chief of staff brought him back, this time as director of the Presidential Personnel Office, responsible for hiring and firing staff.
He went about his work with the zeal of a loyalist, rooting out anyone he deemed insufficiently Trumpist.
After the 2020 election, during Trump’s final weeks in power, he took on an even more important role, writes Karl in an excerpt published by Vanity Fair: He was central to the removal of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and replacing him with Christopher Miller and his senior adviser Douglas Macgregor.
While some details of the story have been reported previously, what happened next was unearthed by the congressional January 6 Committee’s investigation but never published.
‘Three days after Macgregor arrived at the Pentagon, he called McEntee and told him he couldn’t accomplish any of the items on their handwritten to-do list without a signed order from the president,’ Karl writes.
Macgregor told them it should focus on Afghanistan and include a specific deadline for withdrawal. He suggested January 31, 2021.
‘McEntee, of course, didn’t know the first thing about drafting a presidential directive— let alone one instructing the movement of thousands of servicemen and -women,’ Karl continues.
‘He had two jobs in the White House — only one of which he was qualified for — and neither one had anything to do with national security or the military.
‘An order even 10 percent as consequential as the one McEntee was drafting would typically go through the National Security Council with input from the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the military commanders in the region.
‘Instead, the guy who usually carried Trump’s bags was hammering it out on his computer, consulting with nobody but the retired colonel the president had just hired because he had seen him on cable TV.’
Macgregor told them to find an old presidential decision memo and copy it.
When McEntee and his assistant finally wrote up the order they had it signed by the president and sent to Kash Patel, the new acting defense secretary’s chief of staff.
But it caused immediate consternation when it reached the acting defense secretary and other senior officials.
Milley immediately wanted to know who was giving Trump military advice, which was — after all — his job. When no-one could answer he headed to the White House, and the extraordinary meeting with Kellogg, who smelled a rat.
Kellogg thought that the only thing that looked official was the president’s signature, but even that could have been dashed off by an ‘autopen,’ used to sign hundreds of letters.
The worried officials confronted Trump. He said he had signed the document but they quickly explained that such a bold move needed to go through a thorough policy process.
‘I said this would be very bad,’ then National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien recalled telling Trump.
‘Our position is that because it didn’t go through any proper process — the lawyers hadn’t cleared it, the staff [secretary] hadn’t cleared it, National Security Council hadn’t cleared it — that it’s our position that the order is null and void.’
Trump’s plan to end the war in Afghanistan had fallen apart almost as quickly as it had been put together.