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How National Security Could Be Upended In The Waning Days Of The Trump Presidency

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the days since the election, President Trump has taken actions that may hinder the incoming Biden administration from moving forward with its agenda and may affect American national security. Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and several other top officials in the Pentagon and replaced them with loyalists. Trump is said to be preparing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. He's considered a strike on Iran against its nuclear weapons program. And this week, Trump fired the Pentagon policy official overseeing the military's efforts to combat ISIS.

My guest, Eric Schmitt, has been covering these stories, as well as covering the assassination of the top scientist in Iran's secret nuclear weapons program. Israel is believed to have carried out the killing, and it's unclear if the Trump administration knew of the plan in advance. Schmitt reports that Pentagon and other national security officials have privately expressed worries that the Trump administration might initiate operations, overt or covert, against Iran or other adversaries at the end of his term.

Eric Schmitt is a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The Times. He's the author of the 2011 book "Counterstrike: The Untold Story Of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda." He's shared three Pulitzer Prizes, including one in 2017 for examining how Vladimir Putin projects power openly and covertly.

Eric Schmitt, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How unusual is it to make big changes in personnel during the transition to a new administration?

ERIC SCHMITT: Well, the changes that President Trump has made just in the last few weeks have been very unusual. Typically, what'll happen in a transition period is that the core group - in this case, the Pentagon - will try and stay as long as possible, at least some of the senior most people, to allow both an effective and smooth transition to the incoming administration, but also in case there's any kind of crisis or an emergency, whether it be domestic or foreign.

And so by essentially decapitating the leadership of the Pentagon now and installing what is probably the least experienced senior leadership team at the Pentagon in decades, the Pentagon exposes itself to both vulnerabilities from abroad, from foreign actors who might try and take advantage of this, but also it puts people in a position where they may not be in the best place to help the transition team of the incoming Biden administration.

GROSS: What are some of the concerns you're hearing about what Trump might be planning before he leaves office?

SCHMITT: Well, as you noted in your introduction, one thing that we've already written about was just a couple of weeks ago, the president held a high-level meeting at the White House with his top national security advisers to consider what to do about Iran and specifically about Iran's nuclear program and one of its major facilities at Natanz. The president has been concerned about this for most of his administration. But in these waning days, he was asking advisers specifically about military options - that is, military strikes, airstrikes, missile strikes - against this particular facility.

This has been an idea that's been floated before by some of the more hawkish members of his administration and has been turned away by the Pentagon in the most part because they understood the impact that could have on starting, basically, escalating tensions and possibly escalating a wider war in the Middle East. In this case, just last month, Mr. Trump's advisers talked him out of it. But there's concern just in these next few weeks that he may revisit this and, you know, order some other kind of strike on his way out.

GROSS: And to do that during the transition to a new administration, what would that mean?

SCHMITT: Well, obviously, what it would mean is you're starting a war that the next guy has to deal with. In this case, it could be a conflict. If it's narrow-focused on attacking a military installation, you could fear retaliation by the Iranians in - against American or American facilities in the Gulf region. So this would be not only an immediate problem for the administration in its final days, but it would cause a huge problem, obviously, for the Biden administration.

In the case of Iran, for instance, it's already been discussing how to restart negotiations over the Iran nuclear accord that President Trump withdrew from. Just last week, there was a complicating issue in that in Iran's top nuclear scientist was killed in an assassination on the outskirts of Tehran, presumably by Israeli agents. This action, which has already prompted calls for retaliation inside of Iran against Israel, possibly the United States, is another matter that will greatly complicate the Bidens - incoming Biden team as it tries to negotiate one of its top foreign policy priorities.

GROSS: Who are the people who are left in the Pentagon to perhaps say it is unwise to start a war right now?

SCHMITT: Well, again, we don't know a whole lot about where the new civilian leadership is. The acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, is a longtime counterterrorism analyst and operator. He was somebody who came to the attention of the White House, serving as a counterterrorism official on the White House's National Security Council, and then most recently, he was the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. But he is relatively inexperienced at this most senior level of policymaking.

So it's really going to fall to the uniformed military and specifically to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, who's already had his own tensions with the president as somebody who will be the strongest military voice to stand up to these kind of potential actions. And we know from our reporting this is exactly what General Milley has done when these - particularly these proposals to attack Iran have come up in the past. And he was one of the most vocal of the president's top advisers last month who argued against an attack against the Natanz facility.

GROSS: So it's unclear whether the Trump administration was given advance warning from Israel that Israel was going to try to take out the scientist who headed the nuclear weapons program in Iran. So is it possible that the Trump administration not only knew but said, you know, we give the green light?

SCHMITT: Well, we don't know exactly what the administration knew. But we do know this - the United States and Israel are very close partners, and they have acted very closely before in similar operations like this in the past. So it seems highly unlikely that the Israelis would go ahead with such a controversial move without at least alerting the United States at some point in advance. We have no evidence yet of this. We have no evidence that there was any specific American involvement in this assassination.

But just going on past practice, it would certainly be reasonable to believe that the United States government at some point got some warning for an operation that clearly took a lot of planning. This wasn't something they just whipped together at the last minute. They'd obviously been surveilling this scientist closely, watching his pattern of his movements and how best to take him out. And so I think anything that sensitive would have been shared with the United States at some level. That's our belief, at least right now.

GROSS: Well, Iran seems to believe that America had some role in the assassination because it's blaming the U.S. and Israel.

SCHMITT: That's right. The criticism is most pointed against the Israelis. I think there's still many in Israel - in Iran, rather, who are hoping that there can be some kind of deal on the nuclear side rekindled with the Biden administration. So the criticism hasn't been as - quite as vociferous against the United States as it has against Israel because there is this hope, as fading as it may now seem, that there can be room to negotiate with the incoming administration. It obviously - to hard-liners, this just gives them more ammunition, of course, to push back on that option and, of course, to say there's one more reason why you can't trust the United States. It pulled out of this deal originally, and here it is possibly complicit in the assassination of its top scientist in this program.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Schmitt. He's a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FOUR ON SIX")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Schmitt, a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. We're talking about the actions President Trump has taken in the days since the election and how those actions may affect our national security and the incoming Biden administration's plans. Trump has conducted a purge of top officials at the Defense Department, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper. And Trump has considered attacking Iran.

So one more thing before we get off the subject of Iran - say the U.S. did strike Iran, what could that lead to?

SCHMITT: Well, it really depends. I think it depends on the Iranian reaction. If it's a very focused strike on a nuclear facility, for instance, it would obviously be up to Iran to determine how - what kind of response that would be if they felt they had to respond against either American - there are now American ships in the Gulf there, or it's against Americans in Iraq, for instance, through the Iranian proxies there, the militias. This could lead to a much greater escalation of a conflict in the Middle East.

On the other hand, the Iranians might, as they basically have done since the Soleimani attack, you know, kept their powder dry. They haven't launched the kind of full-fledged, full-throated retaliation that many feared. And so I think it's really kind of watching to see what the reaction will be from the Iranians just to see how quickly this could escalate.

And, of course, in speaking to allies in the region, our reporters, my colleagues have sensed there's great concern, of course, that this could drag in other countries in the region, not just involving the United States and Iran, but pull in some of the Gulf countries. And this comes at a time, of course, when one of the other major achievements of the Trump administration is to broker - help broker deals between Israel and some of its Gulf neighbors, namely United Arab Emirates and Bahrain so far.

GROSS: So in the meantime, Trump is expected to pull troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. And we know that one of his goals has been to end those longtime wars. At the same time, if he ends up starting a war with Iran, does that seem kind of contradictory, or do you think maybe one of the reasons why he wants to pull troops is that - so he'll have more troops standing by in case he does attack Iran?

SCHMITT: Well, you've touched on kind of one of the paradoxes, of course, of the Trump presidency in that he's obviously always been somebody to tout his support for the military, military credentials, how he's rebuilt the Pentagon into a major fighting force, even more than it was - than he inherited. But he's also - one of his foremost tenets, of course, was to withdraw what he called from these forever wars, these endless conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia and Syria, drawdown. And this has been one of his main promises to his base, going back to 2016.

So the notion - and so on one hand, here he is drawing down almost completely from these places. But on the other hand, the idea that he might, you know, start a war on the way out, it doesn't make a lot of sense. And so you think Trump, in his heart, I don't believe, wants to do this. But I think there are others, both here in the U.S. and possibly in Israel, too, who see this as their last opportunity, as a window closing before the new administration comes in to take out some of this Iranian capability, whether it's in their nuclear facilities or whether it's in some of their missile facilities, for instance, that threaten the region. I think those - there are hawks in both countries, Israel and the United States, who see this as kind of a last chance to do that before a new administration is going to come in and actually try and rekindle some negotiations rather than hostilities with Iran.

GROSS: Who are those American hawks?

SCHMITT: Well, in the past, it's been people like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien. These have been some of the most vocal critics of the Iranian program. Notably in the incident that we mentioned before, last month, Secretary Pompeo was one who argued against a strike at this point. So he may be coming around and understanding this may not be the best option, military action against - at this time.

But of course, this was - one of the theories behind this assassination was that perhaps the Israelis are doing this - whether it's at the Americans bidding or not - in order to provoke a reaction by the Iranians, thus setting in motion a much larger conflagration in the Gulf that the president might not be able to stop. If it's something where the Iranians fire missiles, American service members are killed, he would be under enormous pressure to respond. And the military's Central Command has a very, very large response, if need be, in terms of retaliating militarily.

Now, we've been talking about military strikes. There's also other means of doing this. The United States has used cyberattacks against the Iranians. These are obviously things that are harder - much harder to see, much harder to see the effects of. So that is always a possibility as well.

GROSS: Wait. So are you saying that the assassination of the head of Iran's nuclear program might have been an intentional provocation to start a war?

SCHMITT: It's - I mean, this is one of the theories flying around. This guy was essentially on a hit list. If you can get the opportunity to take him out, he has always been one of the major targets. And it's only been in recent years that he has kind of come out of seclusion, obviously with heavily armed guards. But he's been much more of a public presence now. And I think in the minds of particularly the Israelis but also the United States - this is, you know, one of the major figures in developing Iran's nuclear program - if you ever had the opportunity to take him out, you know, you would do that.

Now, saying that, there's always the context in which this comes into. So if you - are you really going to do this, you know, seven or eight weeks before the transition of an American presidential administration? That's not necessarily figured in that previous calculus. And it may - that's where it's unclear as exactly how much, you know, advance warning the United States got. Could this have been Israel forcing - trying to force the Americans' hand? Or is it something where they were - you know, certain elements perhaps that the Trump administration were given enough warning and essentially gave it their implicit consent to go ahead? Again, we don't know these kind of things, and we're trying to find out more. But these are some of the theories swirling around.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad you're looking into it (laughter). I'm glad you're investigating. Yeah. Let's talk about Mark Esper, the secretary of defense who was ousted during the Pentagon purge. A lot of people think it was related to the night during the George Floyd protests when Trump had his infamous photo op in Lafayette Park and the police cleared the park with tear gas to get ready for the photo op. Esper was one of the people in that photo op, and he later said that he didn't know that that was going to be what this was about. He did not know that this was going to be that photo op. So what do you know about why Esper was fired?

SCHMITT: Well, clearly, that's one of the key moments where the relations between Esper and the president, which were never great to begin with - I mean, they weren't bad, but they weren't terrific - that's when things really started to sour because as much of his - Esper's acknowledging that, you know, you shouldn't have been in that picture, as important was also his pushing back on the possible use of active-duty military troops to quell protests in Washington and other American cities.

He said at the time in a Pentagon news conference - so it wasn't just some offhand remark - that he would not advocate using what's called the Insurrection Act, this late 19th century act allows the president to pull up active duty forces and use on the streets, on American streets. This is separate from the use of National Guard forces. This is, like, calling in the 101st Airborne or the 82nd Airborne Division to deal with this.

And it was from that moment that when Esper's so publicly pushing back for a guy who had been, you know, considered very kind of mild mannered, you know, not a rock-the-boat type of guy - I mean, Trump later kind of derisively called him Yesper (ph). You know, it was one of these guys where he kind of seemed to try to stay on the president's good side but was never in his inner circle. This really turned the president against him.

And it was basically, you know, as we were told that day when Esper made these remarks, the president was raging around the White House, you know, threatening to fire Esper right then and there for what he felt was kind of insubordination. His advisers talked him out of it. But after that, Esper really became almost a kind of a dead man walking over there. He spent much of the summer traveling, doing - was trying to stay out of Washington, trying to stay out of the president's sights. And really, it just became a matter of, you know, when Esper would be fired - not, you know, if.

GROSS: Tell us a little bit about his replacement, Christopher Miller. Is he a Trump loyalist?

SCHMITT: So Christopher Miller, who is the acting secretary of defense, is a longtime former Army Green Beret who served in the initial days of the Iraq War and of the Afghanistan War and really made his mark as a special operations officer in fighting terrorism. He later served in civilian jobs in the Trump administration, both at the White House and counterterrorism and shortly - in a short-lived job in the Pentagon before last summer going over to head the National Counterterrorism Center, which is the government's clearinghouse for counterterrorism analysis.

So he's very focused and well respected in the counterterrorism realm. But he was very much of a surprise as somebody who would be picked to be the next defense secretary just because he has no experience in all the other areas that a defense secretary normally would have. So I think he had the trust of the White House, and I think that's why they selected him.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Schmitt, a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Schmitt, a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. We're talking about the actions President Trump has taken in the days since the election and how those actions may affect our national security and the incoming Biden administration's plans. Trump has conducted a purge of top officials at the Defense Department, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Let's talk about the purge in the Pentagon, and let's start with someone who was fired this week, Christopher Maier, who was the head of the Pentagon's defeat-ISIS task force. The premise for firing him was, well, we've already won the war against ISIS, so who needs this task force anymore? Did we win it?

SCHMITT: Well, again, this has been one of the president's big selling points, is that he has led the defeat of the Islamic State. Actually, what happened was he inherited a campaign from the Obama administration that was underway. He accelerated it. He gets credit for that. And ultimately, he did - was able to, along with allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria, defeat the physical state of the Islamic State - the territory they controlled.

By no means is the Islamic State gone. Counterterrorism analysts estimate there's still some 10,000 fighters that have basically gone to ground as guerrillas now in parts of Iraq and Syria and continue to carry out attacks. And what this particular task force did was it coordinated a lot of the different complicated operations and policies, not just at the Pentagon but the coordination within the U.S. government, the different spy agencies and the State Department, as well as with allies who are on the ground in places like Syria and Iraq.

So by disbanding this task force and firing Chris Maier at this point, it does two things. One, it basically complicates, first off, the incoming Biden administration's ability to get a handle on what's going on on the ground right now. I mean, Maier was literally in the process - along with his staff - of answering dozens of questions from the incoming transition team when he was called in by a White House appointee and summarily fired on Monday.

And so you lose the ability to, you know, efficiently and effectively communicate what's going on to the incoming team. You also, however, lose the ability, in a crisis between now and the inauguration, of having your kind of one-stop-shop place, of some kind of a crisis management hub in the Pentagon if there was ever, you know, a bombing or an attack started by ISIS in northeastern Syria or in Iraq. Maier's team was the one that basically coordinated the U.S. government response both in Washington and then with the military players overseas.

Now, you know, obviously there's still people in the Pentagon who can do that, but it's just not going to be as efficient. And so if there's a problem on the ground between now and then, you've taken away one of the main instruments that's been developed over the last few years that the government has used to combat ISIS.

GROSS: If this task force was a clearinghouse for the government's counterterrorism operations and policies and now this task force no longer exists 'cause it was disbanded when Maier was fired, what happens next? I mean, you write that Maier's duties are going to be folded into two other offices that deal with special operations and regional policies. But those two offices are led by two of the people Trump promoted to positions in the Defense Department during the purge when he replaced people he fired. And those people are loyalists to Trump. So what are the implications for Biden getting access to the information that he needs? And what are the larger implications of these loyalists now having control over the information that used to be in this task force?

SCHMITT: Well, I'll give you what some of the Biden people who I've spoken to fear, is that they're now going to get more of a spin or a Trump bias on some of these operations than they would have from what was a task force that was led largely by nonpartisan counterterrorism specialists drawn from the intelligence services and from the military and this guy Chris Maier, of course, who's been somebody who's been working for both Republican and Democratic administrations for two decades.

GROSS: Are there things that the loyalists who are now taking control over this information - are there concerns that they could keep some of the information secret if it could be damning in any way of how Trump has conducted himself or of secret policies?

SCHMITT: There's always that possibility, Terry. I think the other problem they face is just some of the underlying assumptions they would present to the incoming team about, for instance, why are they drawing down to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and in Iraq now. Particularly in Afghanistan, this was a drawdown well beyond what both Secretary Esper and what General Milley and his commanders in Afghanistan had felt comfortable with.

They had made a reduction down to - agreed to go down to about 5,000 by about this time and felt that would be about right to continue carrying out the missions of helping the Afghan security forces as well as conduct counterterrorism missions that was laid out in this agreement that the U.S. Trump administration struck with the Taliban back in February. And in a classified memo just before he left, Secretary Esper basically argued against going down any further until the Taliban showed reason, you know, that they were - you know, they were basically fulfilling the obligations of the agreement.

Their violence has been spiking in Afghanistan. There's a lot of concern that if you draw down further, A, it's just going to make the violence worse. But, B, it just gives the Taliban even more incentive to not negotiate in good faith because why should they? The signal coming from the Trump administration is we'll drawdown whether you agree with the terms of the deal we struck or not.

So I think in this case, for instance, you would get - rather than maybe in a more unbiased opinion of what the impact of a drawdown in Afghanistan could mean on counterterrorism operations there, you're going to get more of a politically filtered response coming from these White House loyalists of why this is the right thing to do at this time. And, oh, don't worry. You know, we're going to take care of everything with a smaller number of troops, and the threat isn't as bad as you think it is 'cause we've defeated ISIS.

It's a much rosier and perhaps overly optimistic set of assumptions that they're handing to the Biden administration. And the Biden administration, you know, predictably, is going to be a little bit more wary about this. And it's going to take them more time to sort out what's fact versus fiction in this kind of scenario.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Schmitt, a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Eric Schmitt, a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. We're talking about the actions President Trump has taken in the days since the election and how those actions may affect our national security and the incoming Biden administration's plans.

So let's talk about the two people who had the offices that are now inheriting all of the information that had been with that defeat-ISIS task force. You've written about Anthony Tata. What's his position now? Who is he?

SCHMITT: Anthony Tata is a retired one-star Army general who actually had been nominated to be the Pentagon's top policy official, but his formal nomination was basically doomed, was sidetracked, after senators from both parties voiced opposition to his selection, largely because of his history of inflammatory comments. He had expressed in a series of tweets that were denounced by both Democrats and Republicans - he had called Islam the most oppressive, violent religion, and he referred to President Obama at one point as a terrorist leader.

So his nomination seemed to be sidetracked, but the administration kind of worked around it and, using some kind of bureaucratic tactics, were able to put him in a job at the Pentagon, in that same office but one that didn't need Senate confirmation, as his nomination would have required. And then when these purges came, he essentially became somebody who was elevated into a position where he's now serving, essentially, as this top policy official - the job that, you know, the senators basically said he wasn't qualified even to have a hearing on.

He's now in this - in a temporary - serving in a temporary position that doesn't require Senate confirmation. And so he sits atop this, you know, very large policy bureaucracy in the Pentagon. And he would be the one who would inherit some of the regional issues that the task force dealt with - you know, the regional experts on Iran, Iraq, Syria, those kind of things. That would fall into his office now.

GROSS: So to sum up, the Biden administration will be getting some of its information about terrorism from somebody who called President Obama a terrorist leader.

SCHMITT: Well, it could end up that way. Now, of course, you know, it depends on where they draw this information from. But he is now - all these officials that were part of this task force and who may now still be tasked with, you know, giving responses to the Biden transition team, you know, General Tata is one of the people they all now, you know, would report to.

GROSS: And so since he didn't get confirmed as undersecretary of defense, he now has the title senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for policy. That's quite a workaround.

SCHMITT: That's called Washington gobbledygook.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SCHMITT: Yeah, and that's - there are a lot of those kind of officials floating around not just the Pentagon, but in other agencies because what's happened is people have left and the administration hasn't been able to recruit people in a timely way. They've been promoting people or shifting people around and having to get around the rules that govern how long people can stay in, you know, unconfirmed positions.

And so you have a lot of people serving in acting capacities or even in this capacity that's even beyond - you know, even a step below acting. It's this - performing the functions of. And they do not have many of the same kind of authorities that the permanently, you know, nominated and confirmed authorities do, too. But they are people who can come in quickly, and basically, they're not - you know, basically not as beholden, certainly to the Senate, as they were because they never were confirmed.

GROSS: So we'd been talking about how the defeat-ISIS task force was a clearinghouse for information about terrorism and counterterrorism. And now that that task force has been disbanded, two offices have inherited that information. One of them is headed by Anthony Tata, who I've just been talking about. The other office is headed by Ezra Cohen-Watnick, another Trump loyalist who replaced one of the Pentagon officials during the recent purge. So who is Ezra Cohen-Watnick?

SCHMITT: So Ezra Cohen-Watnick is somebody - he's 34 and was kind of a little-known officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency before he gained attention in early 2017, when he was kind of plucked to serve on the staff of the short-lived national security adviser, Michael Flynn. In that post, Cohen-Watnick basically told other administration officials that he had hoped to use covert action to help topple Iran's clerical government.

After General Flynn resigned under pressure, the new national security adviser who came in, General McMaster, H.R. McMaster, sought to push Cohen-Watnick out of the White House. But he had very powerful backers, namely Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, and Steve Bannon, who was then one of Trump's senior strategists. McMaster eventually did get Cohen-Watnick pushed out, but Cohen-Watnick became kind of a hero figure to the anti-establishment Republicans and believers in the so-called deep state who believe, you know, that they're - the intelligence agency professionals are out to topple Mr. Trump.

So he's come into the Pentagon, and he actually holds two of these acting jobs. He's now both this acting secretary - he's an assistant secretary that oversees kind of a special operations policy. But even more important, he's become the acting undersecretary, which is an even higher position, for intelligence policy. So he has a lot of say over what the U.S. does in terms of supporting intelligence agencies around the world, including the CIA.

So there's a lot of power suddenly concentrated in the hands of a couple people who, again, are coming over either from the White House or have been plucked from the sidelines to kind of run these important Pentagon positions in the last several weeks. And it's unclear as exactly kind of what kind of agenda they brought over with them. In most cases, you know, if you're only coming in for a couple of months, it's basically in a caretaker position to kind of, you know, keep everything steady until the new team comes on.

But the concern here is that these are much more kind of hard-line ideologues who will use the Pentagon in some way to achieve policy objectives they weren't able to accomplish over the first four years.

GROSS: So let's go back to Ezra Cohen-Watnick, one of the people - one of the Trump loyalists who replaced one of the people purged in the Pentagon. So one of the things he did, as you discussed, he compiled intelligence reports about the federal investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign and other officials and then provided the materials - I don't know if he provided them directly to Nunes. I think the reporting says that he provided them to someone else who gave it to Nunes.

SCHMITT: He helped compile them. I don't think he gave them to them.

GROSS: So you think he gave them to someone who gave them to Nunes?

SCHMITT: Yeah, that's kind of our understanding now.

GROSS: And this was the time when Nunes, who is a Republican congressman from California, was heading the House Intelligence Committee. And Nunes seemed very much to be on Trump's side. And Nunes wanted to prove that the Obama administration actually spied on the Trump administration, and that was the real problem - not Russia collaboration or collusion or cooperation with the Trump campaign in 2016. So does that tell you anything about Trump's possible agenda in putting Ezra Cohen-Watnick in a higher position, the fact that he had access to information that Trump thought could help prove that the Obama administration spied on his campaign?

SCHMITT: Well, again, this is what - critics of Mr. Cohen-Watnick accused him of being one of the big conspiracy theorists within the administration, and this is - kind of points to this as evidence that this - these reports, which did end up in the hands of Mr. Nunes, you know, that Nunes cited as evidence of improper behavior by the Obama administration. Obviously, there have been, you know, problems cited in some of the FBI's investigation.

But this - but some of the things that Nunes has talked about go well beyond that and, of course, all in the aim of trying to fulfill one of President Trump's final goals here, as we've seen him pursue through different federal departments, and that is to undermine the investigation and accusations against him about Russian involvement in the election of 2016 and what his campaign knew about it or how they participated in that.

And so to have somebody who was involved in compiling these kind of reports now sitting in a very senior position at the Pentagon - granted with only, you know, seven weeks to go - I think is very disconcerting for a lot of career people that I've spoken to who worked at the Pentagon through different administrations, as well as obviously those who were ousted in the purge last month.

GROSS: OK, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Eric Schmitt, a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The New York Times. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Eric Schmitt, a senior writer covering terrorism and national security for The Times. We're talking about actions President Trump has taken in the days since the election and how those actions may affect our national security and the incoming Biden administration's plans.

Attorney General William Barr this week promoted John Durham to the position of special counsel. That's the title Robert Mueller had. So Durham is going to continue his investigation into the origins of the investigation into ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, but now he's going to be doing it as special counsel. So what are the implications of that for the incoming Biden administration?

SCHMITT: Well, it means that with this new position that Durham has, it's very difficult politically for President Biden to remove Durham. The special counsel now has powers that he can remain after the Trump administration leaves and continues investigation. So depending on - so far he hasn't produced anything publicly about this from his investigation, which has greatly disappointed the president, who I think had hoped for something before the election, much less before he left office.

But this now, again, leaves behind, you know, a legacy that certainly the Biden administration is hoping to put in the rearview mirror. And if you have this prominent investigator still kind of hammering away on the Russia investigation, that's not something that the Biden camp is wanting to be focused on in their initial weeks and months, as they try and deal with other, you know, top priorities, like dealing with the pandemic and the economic crisis caused by it and any other calamities that will come up in the first few months, as often happens in an administration.

GROSS: So there seems to be a pattern in some of these promotions and title changes that Trump is empowering people who have worked to discredit the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016. It's as if his - you know, one of his, you know, parting gestures is to continue to discredit that investigation and to try to say, I did nothing wrong.

SCHMITT: Well, that certainly is the appearance here. And, obviously, somebody like Mr. Durham would be in a position to carry that out with this investigation. It's going to be more difficult to follow through. It's a little hard to see how the loyalists at the Pentagon necessarily pursue some of these objectives in the last days. Yes, they come with this legacy behind them, trying to undermine the administration. It's - but it's more of in doing so, they cement their ties, their loyalist credentials to the Trump camp. And so then you have to ask yourself, well, what else is it that they're trying to do in these last several weeks that they can? But there are other things that you have to wonder about. Could there be contracts that could be let in these last several weeks, contracts that normally take, you know, months, if not years to negotiate? But are there things that are teed up? There are things that are just about ready to do that they - that these loyalists could then push through in the last weeks. That's what we're kind of digging around to see what may be in store.

GROSS: What kind of contracts? Is one of them, too, that in addition to contracts that would lead or cement in policies, there could be contracts that Trump would want to sign as favors to friends and loyalists?

SCHMITT: Well, again, that's, again, something that we're looking into, whether it's with rushing through arms sales to various countries. There was just a big arms sale to the Saudis announced this week, for instance. But that has been in the works for months. So it's unclear - it's probably not likely that had anything to do with this, and that's more in the State Department's realm. But could there be some contracts that could go to big Trump donors or other kind of loyalists? Those are the kind of things we're looking at to see if it's even possible whether the people in these positions now would be able to have the influence over the bureaucracy to pull something off like this. Right now, I think most experts are skeptical that could happen. But that's what we're watching closely about.

GROSS: Since there are concerns within the military and within the Defense Department that Trump might try to attack Iran, which could lead to a war with Iran - and, you know, Trump also can start a nuclear war if he wanted to. I'm not saying that that's on his agenda, but he has the capability of it. Are there concerns within the military and the Pentagon about what would happen if they get an order that they think is incredibly misguided and very dangerous?

SCHMITT: Well, we've been told there have been these kind of internal discussions among the Joint Chiefs about what to do. They, of course, are obligated to carry out lawful orders, not unlawful orders. So it may be something that would end up going to lawyers themselves if they were faced with such a choice. I know we were looking at these kind of possibilities in the run up to the election and maybe the period in just the few days afterward. So there have been concerns on the part of the Joint Chiefs and the senior military leaders. They are obligated to follow lawful orders, but not unlawful orders. And so it could be that if something they considered unlawful came from the White House, they would have to go to their lawyers quickly and decide how to do this.

I think some of these concerns were particularly pointed in the run up to the elections and during that several days during the count that the president might actually try and use the military in such a way - deploy the military to polling sites or, you know, perhaps use them to put down any unrest if protests developed after the count. That fortunately did not happen. And so some of the worst-case scenarios that I think military leaders envisioned did not come to fruition. And I think there is a - some sense of relief now that those kind of threats may be behind us. I mean, it's always possible, of course. The president could try to do something - again, as we've talked about - in terms of a strike against Iran or something like that.

But there is a sense now, at least among some of the military officials, that some of the, you know, really dramatic type moves that they might be forced to make do not seem to be coming to fruition now. But they also warned me that there's seven weeks to go. This is a very unpredictable president, a very unpredictable commander in chief. And so they're watching things very closely.

GROSS: Eric Schmitt, thank you so much for talking with us.

SCHMITT: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Eric Schmitt is a senior writer at The New York Times covering terrorism and national security. Our interview was recorded yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "NISA")

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our interview with Hugh Grant, who stars with Nicole Kidman in the HBO Limited series "The Undoing," or with singer and songwriter Loudon Wainwright and bandleader and tuba and bass player Vince Giordano, who teamed up on a new album of music from the 1920s and '30s - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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(SOUNDBITE OF ABDULLAH IBRAHIM'S "NISA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.