Changing of the (national) guard: DC commander to step down on Inauguration Day

A political appointee, Army Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz will be removed the moment Donald Trump is inaugurated as president. It's an unorthodox step that may signal the incoming administration's priorities.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
In this Dec. 8, 2016 file photo, construction continues on the Inaugural platform in preparation for the Inauguration and swearing-in ceremonies for President-elect Donald Trump, on the Capitol steps in Washington. Army Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz, the commander of the DC National Guard, will step down at 12:01 p.m., as soon as Trump is inaugurated.

Inauguration Day. It’s an event that has been months in the planning — and Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz has been involved with the security preparations at every step. 

But when his troops come back to the armory at the end of the day, the commander of DC’s National Guard won’t be there to thank them for a job well done. Major General Schwartz will be stepping down from his command at 12:01 p.m. on January 20, the moment Donald Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States.

The decision to remove Schwartz on Inauguration Day may be part of an effort by President-elect Trump’s team to clean house and get to work immediately. But some have questioned the wisdom of asking him to leave in the middle of an event with national security implications, and say such resignations can actually hamper the transition.

“The timing is extremely unusual,” Schwartz said in an interview on Friday, adding that he would “never plan to leave a mission in the middle of a battle,” the Washington Post reported.

Like other political appointees, the commander of DC’s National Guard serves at the pleasure of the president, meaning he can be removed at any time. All political appointees submit their resignations before a new president is inaugurated, in order to offer the incoming administration a clean slate. These resignations, however, are often rejected outright or not acted upon for months, a “grace period” that provides a smooth transition for the administration and gives appointees a chance to figure out their next steps.

In the case of the DC National Guard commander – the only National Guard post to be appointed by the president – there has long been substantial continuity, NPR reported. Schwartz, for instance, was appointed by George W. Bush in the summer of 2008. Maj. Gen. Warren L. Freeman, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, retained the post for President Bush’s first two years in office. And Russell C. Davis, who became commander under George H.W. Bush, held the position for almost the entirety of President Clinton’s first term.

The Trump team, however, signaled its intention to treat political appointments differently when it instructed all politically appointed ambassadors to have their bags packed by January 20. The move leaves the Mr. Trump with a raft of diplomatic positions to fill with people of his choosing.

The political house-cleaning is perhaps not surprising for an administration that plans to use the inauguration to say, “Let me get back to work,” as inauguration planner Tom Barrack told the Associated Press on Tuesday. And removing Schwartz may be part of that house-cleaning. 

But the decisions to remove ambassadors have raised questions about instability, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, and some say Schwartz’s resignation could have a similar effect.

“It doesn’t make sense to can the general in the middle of an active deployment,” said DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, according to the Washington Post.

Brig. Gen. William J. Walker will take over at 12:01 p.m., when Schwartz’s resignation takes effect.

Indeed, several transition officials wanted to keep Schwartz on for continuity, a person close to the transition told the Post, adding that the Army pushed to replace him. Two military officials, however, said the Trump team decided to accept the resignation.

According to Phillip Carter, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense under Obama, the Trump team may not have known the role Schwartz played in the inauguration when they decided to accept his resignation immediately. 

Many of the appointees, Mr. Carter said, “have expertise that you want to keep on duty, or at least keep in position until a replacement has been made,” the Chicago Tribune reported.

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