Top Pentagon officials delayed recommending two female generals to head combatant commands last year over fears that then-President Donald Trump would override those recommendations, according to a new report by the New York Times.
Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley reportedly feared that Trump’s history of belittling women would lead him to override the nominations of Air Force Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost and Army Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson to the commands of U.S. Transportation Command and U.S. Southern Command, respectively.
“They were chosen because they were the best officers for the jobs, and I didn’t want their promotions derailed because someone in the Trump White House saw that I recommended them or thought DoD was playing politics,” Esper told the Times. “This was not the case. They were the best qualified. We were doing the right thing.”
Instead, Esper and Milley delayed nominating the two women until after President Joe Biden won the November elections, who the officials thought would be more open-minded to having women serve in positions historically held by men, the Times reported.
Tony Thomas, a retired four-star general who led U.S. Special Operations command, criticized the move as “incredibly flawed and cowardly decision making.”
The Times article reveals another aspect of how the unpredictable nature of the Trump administration led top government officials to make complicated and ethically-fraught decisions around the nomination of two competent and accomplished commanders. The news also comes as the military attempts to confront a range of issues, including sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and grooming standards.
Women make up a slim minority of the military’s general officer ranks. In each branch, they make up between 1.1% and 13% of the general ranks, according to 2019 data from the Service Women’s Action Network. Military-wide, women make up between 17.6% of the officer corps and 16% of enlisted members, SWAN found. Van Ovost is the only four-star female general and the fifth female four-star in U.S. history.
Milley stuck with the plan even after Esper was fired by Trump on Nov. 9. Had Trump won re-election, the officials would have still recommended Van Ovost and Richardson to the White House for approval and hoped for the best, the Times reported, but their chances of being nominated would be better under a Biden administration.
Esper and Milley had butted heads with Trump on previous issues, including Trump’s wish to use active-duty troops to quell Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Trump was also staunchly opposed to re-naming Army bases named after Confederate officers, a move which Esper and Milley considered exploring.
Though Milley declined to comment on the article, the Times said some former Trump administration officials disputed the notion that the nominations were delayed because of sexism from the White House. Instead, the Senate would have been unlikely to consider any year-end nominations, so the Pentagon would have waited to submit new nominations until after the new Congress took office in January.
Van Ovost currently leads Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, which is the same location for Transportation Command headquarters. Richardson commands U.S. Army North, based at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. U.S. Army North is the Army element of U.S. Northern Command.
Featured image: (Left) Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, commander, U.S. Army North (USARNORTH), speaks to the Soldiers of D Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at a Mobile Surveillance Camera Site in Del Rio, Texas, Dec. 24, 2019. (Right) Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Air Mobility Command commander, sits at the pilot’s controls of a KC-46A Pegasus while in-flight over Kansas Feb. 6, 2021. (DoD photos)