Trump's Acting Defense Secretary Says He 'Cannot Wait' to Leave the Job

Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher C. Miller.
Acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher C. Miller visits U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) headquarters on board Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Nov 25., 2020. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jordan Crouch)

Inauguration Day, it appears, can't come soon enough for Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.

He told reporters Thursday that he "cannot wait to leave this job," according to a transcript released by the Pentagon on Friday.

"Believe me," Miller said on his 67th day on the job since President Donald Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper after the election.

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Miller was speaking to reporters en route to Washington, D.C., where tens of thousands of National Guard members are securing the city ahead of troubling threats in the leadup to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration -- and after a violent mob overtook the U.S. Capitol last week.

Though Miller has been in the acting secretary job for just a couple of months, he has faced several challenging tasks. He has overseen the start of the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, questions about the response to the Capitol riot, and now a massive activation of National Guard members leading up to the end of his boss's presidential term.

In the short conversation with reporters, Miller appeared to break ranks with most military leaders who cite China as the top long-term threat to the U.S. When asked about the biggest Defense Department challenge that needs to be fixed, he said: 

"What do I think? I think it's changing our mindset that is focused on. ... Everybody says, 'Oh, all we've been focusing on is counter violent extremism, and the Chinese stole a march on us.' … Historians will figure that one out. ... I think it's not accurate." 

The Navy's top officer released a new 10-year strategy this week that is largely focused on China. 

"China," the strategy states, is "our most pressing long-term strategic threat."

Miller went on to say that if he had been in the job longer, he would have liked to clean up some of the Defense Department's notoriously slow and complicated acquisition processes.

"Talk about [a] wicked problem," he said.

He zeroed in on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which the Congressional Research Service describes as the Defense Department's largest weapon procurement program.

"I gotta tell you, yesterday we were talking to some guy, some lieutenant colonel, or colonel. [We] said, 'What are you flying?' [He] said, 'F-35,'" Miller recalled. "I was like, 'That's a piece of ...' and he laughed, and I was like, 'No seriously, tell me about it,' and he ... said ...'Unbelievable aircraft.'"

A defense official who was traveling with Miller said the acting defense secretary did not end the sentence about the F-35 being a "piece of…" with any particular word.  

"The Secretary often uses casual and humorous language with reporters and personnel during travel," the official said. "That characteristic does not convey well in a written transcript but was obvious to participants."

Miller's not the first person serving in that role to have negative views about the program. Another one of Trump's acting defense secretaries, Patrick Shanahan, called the F-35 Lightning II program "f---ed up."

When Shanahan was investigated in 2019 over allegations that he used his position to promote his former employer, Boeing, when he said that the F-35 aircraft itself is "awesome," but that the program is "f---ed up." There are too many expensive retrofits, he said, and the planes are too often on the ground awaiting those fixes.

The F-35 is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, a Boeing competitor.

Shanahan was ultimately found not to have promoted Boeing while serving as acting defense secretary.

Miller was also asked Thursday what he'd learned about Russia's capabilities while serving in the job. He responded by saying he has "professional respect for how they do things," citing the country's irregular warfare capabilities.

Top military leaders have, in recent years, called a resurgent Russia one of the top threats to the United States.

"I think they've played a really bad hand of card[s] very, very well," Miller said. "Declining population, single source of economic revenue through natural resources. I kind of, you know, like professionally, I'm like, 'Wow, they're doing pretty well.' And they're using a lot of irregular warfare concepts, information, all this stuff, in a way that, you know, like ... good on them."

Other U.S. military leaders have also expressed professional appreciation for Russian military capabilities. One of the U.S. Navy's top submarine officers was so impressed with Russia's new Project 885 nuclear attack boats that he had a model of K-329 Severodvinsk built for his office, USNI News reported in 2014.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: IG Report: Shanahan Called F-35 Program, Not Plane, 'F-----d Up'

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