Sign up for our daily briefing
Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.
Catch up on the day's biggest business stories
Subscribe to Axios Closer for insights into the day’s business news and trends and why they matter
Sign up for Axios Pro Rata
Dive into the world of dealmakers across VC, PE and M&A with Axios Pro Rata. Delivered daily to your inbox by Dan Primack and Kia Kokalitcheva.
Sports news worthy of your time
Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.
Tech news worthy of your time
Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.
Get the inside stories
Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.
Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday
Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday
Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver
Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines
Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities
Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay
Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte
Want a daily digest of the top Nashville news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Nashville newsletter.
Want a daily digest of the top Columbus news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Columbus newsletter.
Want a daily digest of the top Dallas news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Dallas newsletter.
Want a daily digest of the top Austin news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Austin newsletter.
Want a daily digest of the top Atlanta news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Atlanta newsletter.
Want a daily digest of the top Philadelphia news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Philadelphia newsletter.
Want a daily digest of the top Chicago news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios Chicago newsletter.
Sign up for Axios NW Arkansas
Stay up-to-date on the most important and interesting stories affecting NW Arkansas, authored by local reporters
Want a daily digest of the top DC news?
Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with the Axios DC newsletter.
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Axios' "Off the rails" series documents the end of the Trump administration, from election night 2020 through the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol.
One important piece is only now beginning to emerge: Former President Donald Trump's last-minute bid to pull U.S. forces from Afghanistan and swaths of the Middle East, Africa and even Europe ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration — and why he blinked.
John McEntee, one of Donald Trump's most-favored aides, handed retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor a piece of paper with a few notes scribbled on it. He explained: "This is what the president wants you to do."
1. Get us out of Afghanistan.
2. Get us out of Iraq and Syria.
3. Complete the withdrawal from Germany.
4. Get us out of Africa.
It was Nov. 9, 2020 — days after Trump lost his re-election bid, 10 weeks before the end of his presidency and just moments after Macgregor was offered a post as senior adviser to acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller.
As head of the powerful Presidential Personnel Office, McEntee had Trump's ear. Even so, Macgregor was astonished. He told McEntee he doubted they could do all of these things before Jan. 20.
"Then do as much as you can," McEntee replied.
In Macgregor's opinion, Miller probably couldn't act on his own authority to execute a total withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan because he was serving in an acting capacity. If this was for real, Macgregor told McEntee, then it was going to need an order from the president.
The one-page memo was delivered by courier to Christopher Miller's office two days later, on the afternoon of Nov. 11. The order arrived seemingly out of nowhere, and its instructions, signed by Trump, were stunning: All U.S. military forces were to be withdrawn from Somalia by Dec. 31, 2020. All U.S. forces were to be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Jan. 15, 2021.
What the fuck is this? Miller wondered.
A former Green Beret, Miller had directed the National Counterterrorism Center and was accustomed to following process. Trump had tapped him to run the Pentagon after his unceremonious firing-by-tweet of Mark Esper. It was Miller's third day on the job.
News of the memo spread quickly throughout the Pentagon. Top military brass, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, were appalled. This was not the way to conduct policy — with no consultation, no input, no process for gaming out consequences or offering alternatives.
A call was quickly placed to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. In turn, Cipollone notified the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien. Neither Cipollone nor O'Brien had any idea what the order was or where it had come from.
Neither did the office of the staff secretary — whose job it was to vet all the paper that reached the president's desk. Yet the paper bore Trump's distinctive Sharpie signature.
The U.S. government's top national security leaders soon realized they were dealing with an off-the-books operation by the commander in chief himself.
Many would rally to push back — sometimes openly and in coordination, at other times so discreetly that top Trump administration officials had to turn to classified intercepts from the National Security Agency for clues.
Trump's instincts should have come as little surprise. He was frantically trying to salvage his own legacy while simultaneously trying to overturn the election results and block Biden's transition to power. The result was chaos.
Trump's calls to halt the "endless wars" could be traced back to at least 2011, when he was a real estate developer and reality TV celebrity. He'd sent scores of tweets railing against the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan while mulling the idea of running for president.
Once in office, though, Trump's ambitions to withdraw from Afghanistan and other countries were subdued, slow-rolled, and detoured by military leaders.
Trump did not help his own agenda when he surrounded himself at the start with generals, many of whom had made their careers at U.S. Central Command. They fundamentally disagreed with the president's worldview. They were personally invested in Afghanistan. And several would come to see it as their job to save America and the world from their commander in chief.
By the spring of 2017, two generals Trump had installed in top positions — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in an interagency process run by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — had begun working on an option to send 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
This became a fundamental policy battle that attracted a full array of civilian, military and political warriors — some assembling in the first flush of Trump's presidency, but leaving within a year.
The decision to expand troops in Afghanistan had also put the generals on an early collision course with Trump's chief strategist and provocateur, Steve Bannon.
Bannon had begun attending National Security Council meetings in early 2017 at the president's direction — alongside a team of pro-withdrawal allies, including Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who ultimately became the vice president's national security adviser.
Bannon insists that he frequently demanded the Pentagon answer basic facts about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, including where billions of dollars in U.S. aid were going and how many troops and contractors were on the ground.
"They literally would not give you any information. And the information they gave you was bullshit. In every presentation, they say you're 18 months away from turning the war around. Always. You're always 18 months away."
Tensions came to a head at an NSC meeting in July 2017, when Bannon sought to portray the emerging consensus in Trump's national security team as a continuation of what he saw as a string of idiotic judgments that left consecutive presidents stuck in Afghanistan for 16 years. Bannon lobbed a wild idea: Replace America's troops in Afghanistan with private mercenaries.
Bannon was a maverick and accountable to no one, including Trump much of the time. And he had been doing an end run around the process — meeting on his own with Erik Prince, the private security entrepreneur behind scandal-plagued Blackwater. NSC staff became worried that Prince and Bannon might have lucrative ulterior motives.
McMaster sharply told Bannon he was welcome to bring his private army idea into the actual NSC process, but it never entered the official paper flow.
Trump blew up at his top national security aides in a Situation Room meeting on July 19, 2017, that was first reported by NBC. He declared that the U.S. was "losing" the war and suggested that Gen. John Nicholson be fired as the top commander in Afghanistan. Nicholson survived until September 2018.
By early August 2017 — in another round of the carousel — White House chief of staff Reince Priebus was replaced by another retired general, John Kelly. Three basic options for Afghanistan emerged: Withdraw, shift to a CIA-led covert counterterrorism strategy, or send in more troops.
The generals pushed aggressively for more troops, warning that pulling out could create a vacuum for terrorists to gain a stronghold like the Islamic State group, or ISIS, did when President Obama withdrew from Iraq in 2011.
The Don't-Be-Obama argument started to resonate with Trump, and hawkish allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham would continue to fire it as a political weapon even now.
Bannon rapidly lost influence after triggering a fusillade of aggressive policy initiatives that caused serious grief for the administration. Trump fired Bannon on Aug. 18, 2017, seven months into office.
That same day, at Camp David and worn down by their arguments, Trump signed off on his generals' favored option and became the third consecutive president to send troops into Afghanistan. He had changed his stance.
But he had not really changed his mind.
On the afternoon of Nov. 9, 2020, Douglas Macgregor, a decorated but highly controversial combat veteran, walked into the Presidential Personnel Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a historic and flamboyant building in the Second Empire style that once housed the U.S. Department of War.
It was six days after the election and two days since the networks had called the race for Biden.
Some staff had gone home early, while others had left to look for new jobs. Those who were still there were mostly Trump acolytes, remaining in a holding pattern as the president and his allies continued their ill-fated quest to overturn the results of the election.
Macgregor, 68, whose views on foreign policy and social issues had seen him excommunicated from the military establishment, had come to meet McEntee, who had become a controversial figure for his role in purging government officials deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump.
At 31, McEntee was a former college football quarterback who had worked as Trump's body man. He arrived about 10 minutes after Macgregor, having come straight from the West Wing. He ushered Macgregor into his office and closed the door behind them.
It was a spacious, light-filled room adorned with Trump campaign memorabilia. McEntee swung a chair around his desk to sit directly in front of Macgregor. "Colonel, the president wants to know if you'll come in and be senior adviser to the acting secretary of defense," McEntee said.
"Why is that?" Macgregor asked.
"The president thinks that you can help extricate us from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and potentially other places," McEntee replied.
Macgregor, a fluent German speaker, was at that point Trump's nominee to be ambassador to Berlin. It was a position he would never hold because of the election loss, not to mention his long history of incendiary remarks, which included advocating martial law at the U.S.-Mexico border and criticizing Germany for giving welfare benefits to "millions of unwanted Muslim invaders."
He had met Trump for the first time at an hour-long Oval Office meeting in April 2020. The two men bonded instantly. When the meeting ended, Trump told Macgregor, "I want you working for me. We will find a way."
Trump had warmed to Macgregor through his frequent appearances on Fox News, where the colonel blasted the U.S. military's presence overseas, called congressional leaders "idiots," and ridiculed Pentagon policies on diversity and transgender troops.
Appointing Macgregor to a senior Pentagon position would be like rolling a grenade into the building — particularly as Milley and Macgregor held each other in contempt.
"Only met him once, but he was arguably the least impressive in a series of underwhelming Army Chiefs of Staff since 1991," Macgregor told Axios about Milley. A source close to Milley said that Milley considered Macgregor "irrational edging on all-out lunacy."
It didn't take long for Macgregor to agree to McEntee's offer to come onboard. It was then that McEntee handed Macgregor the paper with Trump's electrifying instructions.
Trump had come to rue the August 2017 speech in which he had announced a new troop surge into Afghanistan. He thoroughly resented Mattis, McMaster and the others who had urged him to adopt a strategy that he considered a waste of time, money, and more American lives.
McMaster was replaced in March 2018 and Trump's third national security adviser, John Bolton, was a notorious advocate for U.S. military interventionism. But even he believed the generals had pushed their luck too far. That became clear when on Dec. 19, 2018, Trump tweeted out a video claiming victory over ISIS and announcing the unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. troops in Syria, another campaign promise he was itching to fulfill.
That move set off a firestorm in Congress and in the media, and led to Mattis' resignation the following day. Mattis thought Trump had contemptuously abandoned America's allies, and he said so with diplomatic understatement in his resignation letter. And yet for all the drama, Trump's demands would again be stifled.
Bolton credits Trump's visit to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Dec. 26, 2018, his first overseas trip to a combat zone, as the single most important moment in preserving the U.S. presence in Syria. Generals there told Trump that the ISIS caliphate could be finished off in two to four weeks, and — at Bolton's urging — stressed the importance of retaining an outpost in southern Syria to deter Iran.
It took far longer — until late March 2019 — to destroy the caliphate. By that time, Pentagon leaders had convinced Trump that the U.S. would need to contribute troops to an internationally monitored buffer zone in northern Syria to prevent Turkey from launching an offensive against Kurdish fighters who had assisted in the war against ISIS. The drawdown was delayed.
Trump would grow more and more frustrated. He had become convinced that the Pentagon was working against him, boxing him into staying in countries that he broadly viewed as terrorist-filled gas stations in a desert.
He would rant about "deep state" subversion, but those talking him out of his instincts were mostly people that he himself had appointed.
Seven months later, Trump again ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from northern Syria, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan notified him that he would be launching a military offensive against the Kurds.
Again, the move set off a public frenzy, and again, Trump was ultimately convinced to leave behind a residual force — this time in eastern Syria, ostensibly to protect Kurdish-controlled oil fields from ISIS.
Hawks like Graham cynically used this argument — "stay there to protect the oil" — to convince Trump to keep forces in Syria. They were playing to Trump's long-held view that the U.S. should have taken the oil from Iraq after the 2003 invasion to subsidize the war effort. That would have breached international law.
But they knew that transactional arguments were more likely to resonate with Trump than human rights arguments about the plight of the Kurds or the fate of Afghan women. So they talked about the oil.
As passionately as Trump apparently felt about pulling America out of the Middle East and Afghanistan, he avoided giving an order to force the military's hand.
When it came down to it, Trump was indecisive. In the view of top officials, he did not seem to want to own the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal.
This allowed the Pentagon to dismiss his tweets and rants and maintain the status quo. They stuck to the National Defense Strategy — a document they fully believed Trump hadn't bothered to read.
Some senior officials also deliberately deceived Trump. "What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal," Jim Jeffrey, Trump's special envoy to Syria and the anti-ISIS coalition, told Defense One in a post-election interview in November 2020.
"We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there," he said, adding that the real number of troops in northeast Syria is "a lot more than" the roughly 200 Trump initially agreed to leave there in 2019.
It was a stunning admission. But it was one that reflected the mindset of some of the national security leaders and savvy bureaucrats who had repeatedly thwarted the commander in chief's demands over four years.
McEntee's appointment to director of the Presidential Personnel Office in February 2020, nearly two years after he'd been fired and escorted from White House grounds over an issue with his security clearance, marked a turning point in Trump's relations with the Pentagon.
The president's behavior and the company he kept in these final months genuinely rattled the uniformed leadership. McEntee was the ultimate Trump loyalist, and one of the few powerful aides who fully agreed with the president's far-reaching aims of reducing the U.S. military presence around the world. With his elevation — and the departure of Bolton several months prior — the White House was working aggressively to hire personnel who shared Trump's vision.
One of the people McEntee identified was Charles Koch Institute's Will Ruger, a foreign policy expert, veteran, and vocal supporter of total withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. For months, Ruger quietly provided the White House with polling and other materials to bolster their case for total withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In May 2020, after Ruger penned an op-ed in the National Interest titled, "President Trump is Right on Afghanistan," McEntee worked to have him nominated as ambassador to Kabul. It was not supported by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who held Ruger in low regard, and his State Department slow-walked the Navy Reserve officer's nomination for months.
Staff purges dovetailed with McEntee's stepped-up efforts to surround Trump with advisers who would finally get Afghanistan done. At the Pentagon, Esper had begun losing favor with Trump almost as soon as he was nominated. Even before he was confirmed he offered his full-throated support to the NATO alliance and stressed the importance of America's role. He had pushed to release the Ukraine funds that ultimately became a focus of Trump's impeachment.
Esper — like Mattis — found he could not operate under the radar as easily as other Trump Cabinet secretaries, such as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who did their jobs largely unbothered by the White House.
Trump had a deep fascination with military rank and prestige, and he initially held an image of both Mattis and Milley as unreconstructed 1940s generals. He based this image almost entirely on their appearance — "straight out of central casting," Trump would say — and in Mattis' case, his ill-fitting nickname "Mad Dog." In reality, these two four-star generals disagreed with Trump on everything from the morality of torture to the wisdom of sending active-duty troops onto American streets.
Trump snapped whenever he saw his Pentagon leaders take actions he perceived as weak or politically correct. In a recent interview with Axios, he criticized Esper for writing what he described as a "very woke" message to the military — where his June 19 memo focused on efforts to "improve diversity and inclusion" at the Pentagon.
Oddly, Trump at the same time viewed the Department of Defense as a lever he could push for his biggest goals: building the border wall, developing Operation Warp Speed, considering deploying troops to manage civil unrest, and ultimately contemplating seizing voting machines in a last-ditch bid to overturn the election.
In conversations with friends, Esper compared his experience of working for Trump to walking across a frozen pond. Small cracks in their relationship were appearing by the day.
The defining crack came when Esper publicly split with the president at a press conference on June 3, 2020. He said he did not know that Trump would pose for a photo op at St. John's Church after law enforcement forcibly cleared protesters from Lafayette Square.
Trump was infuriated by Esper's press conference, in which the Pentagon chief also came out against invoking the Insurrection Act to quell riots with active-duty troops. In Trump's view, what Esper should have said was that the military would be used without delay to deal with any riots in the city of Washington, D.C., or in any U.S. city — period.
The Lafayette episode was a turning point for both men. Esper concluded that Trump was willing to use the military to advance his election prospects and was concerned there were no boundaries. Trump concluded that his secretary of defense was weak.
Esper did his best to stay away from the White House through the rest of 2020, but his clash with the president over Afghanistan worsened as the election neared.
In response to a Trump tweet calling for serving troops to be home by Christmas, Esper sent the president a classified memo warning conditions in Afghanistan were not appropriate for a precipitous withdrawal. A rush for the exits, he argued, would break faith with allies, increase the likelihood of green-on-blue insider attacks, open the door to terrorism, embolden the Taliban, and undermine the government in Kabul.
Trump, with McEntee's encouragement, fired Esper on Nov. 9. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows called Esper to give him a heads up just minutes before a presidential tweet named Christopher Miller as the successor.
The relatively low-profile Miller had first met Trump as an NSC counterterrorism adviser on Oct. 26, 2019 — the night of the special operations raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A request by the commander in chief to lead the Pentagon was not something that Miller, a U.S. Army veteran, felt he could turn down, despite pleas from his family and friends.
Miller told associates he had three goals for the final weeks of the Trump administration: #1: No major war. #2: No military coup. #3: No troops fighting citizens on the streets.
As the reality set in that Biden's election victory would not be overturned, McEntee accelerated his push to install people supportive of Trump's agenda at the top of the Pentagon.
They included Macgregor as Miller's senior adviser, former Devin Nunes aide Kash Patel as chief of staff, and Anthony Tata as acting under secretary of defense for policy. Former senior NSC intelligence official Ezra Cohen, who was chief of special operations under Esper, was promoted to acting under secretary of defense for intelligence and security.
For all the feverish media speculation about the president's secret agenda at the Pentagon, the ultimate goal was simple: Steamroll the generals and extract America from its foreign engagements, leaving behind a done deal that could not be easily reversed by the next administration.
As the new senior adviser to the new acting defense secretary, Douglas Macgregor was prepared for anything amid the fetid psychodramas of those post-election weeks.
He arrived to chaos at the Pentagon. His own decision to seek a presidential order for an immediate Afghanistan withdrawal had set off a bizarre round of bureaucratic make-it-up-as-you-go.
Late on Nov. 10, one of McEntee's subordinates drafting the memo for the president called Macgregor to say they didn't know how to do it: "We're trying to put this together but we don't have a model for this and we want to get the language straight."
Macgregor responded: "Go in and get a presidential decision memorandum out of the file cabinet, and that's what you model it on, and it will have all the authorities you need and the people specifically to whom the order has to go."
"Let's stick first with Afghanistan," he continued. "I think it should be midnight, 31 December 2020." In Macgregor's opinion this allowed Trump to fulfill a promise made when he ran for election: to get out of Afghanistan.
Macgregor heard nothing more from the White House and was astonished when he discovered two days later that the memo had not only been immediately signed by Trump on Nov. 11, but it had also been redrafted somewhere along the way.
The date for the Afghanistan withdrawal had been switched — either by accident or design — from Dec. 31 to Jan. 15.
Likewise a date included in the order for disengagement from Somalia — a smaller piece of Trump's demand to "get out of Africa" — had been changed from Jan. 15 to Dec. 31. Both dates were designed to get U.S. troops out of both countries before Trump left office on Jan. 20.
The memo did not contain instructions for Iraq and Syria — or Germany — aspirations that Macgregor concluded were unachievable in time.
The memo Macgregor asked for had been drafted by a staffer from PPO, brought to the president, signed, and then delivered to Miller within 48 hours. On it hung the future of Afghanistan.
It also meant a new war with all the powerful players in Washington.
Christopher Miller summoned Macgregor to his office and told him he had been fielding furious phone calls from officials who had gotten wind of the order, including an incandescent Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Miller instantly suspected Macgregor had a hand in this back-channel scheme. He respected it as a slick bureaucratic play — and considered himself a full-throated supporter of getting out of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan — but also believed the order was dead on arrival.
He saw the timeline as logistically impossible and thought it risked leaving the incoming Biden administration with a dangerous situation. Relations between Miller and Macgregor would be cool for the brief remainder of Trump's term.
Over at the White House, it didn't take long for McEntee to be fingered as the main culprit of the scheme. McEntee played dumb and suggested he was just doing what Macgregor had instructed him to do.
Cipollone, the White House counsel, and O'Brien, the national security adviser whose reaction one source described as "torqued," marched in to see Trump — and put an immediate halt to the plan. They convinced him to wait to hold a full meeting with his national security team, which took place in the Oval Office within 48 hours.
There, O'Brien, Miller, and Milley all aligned against the plan. They painted a vivid picture of Kabul falling to the Taliban if U.S. forces withdrew precipitously in the final days of the Trump presidency.
In previous conversations with Trump, they had raised the specter of Saigon in 1975, where images of American helicopters evacuating people from rooftops as the North Vietnamese took control of the capital city would become engraved in the historical record of the Vietnam War. The unsubtle warning: This would be Trump's legacy if he rushed to the exit.
And, in a recent interview with Axios, Trump pointed out he also had concerns about leaving behind billions of dollars of equipment during a rushed, logistically complex withdrawal. "You remember those scenes [in Vietnam] with the helicopters, right, with people grabbing onto the gear? You don't want that. And I wouldn't have that," he said. Still, Trump had signed the extraordinary 'withdrawal in eight weeks' order.
In the Oval Office meeting, O'Brien reminded Trump that they'd already agreed on a more modest plan to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by the beginning of 2021.
(When O'Brien had announced this in a speech back in October, Milley had set off a mild media controversy by suggesting that the national security adviser was merely "speculating." Senior Pentagon officials had been privately arguing it was unwise and unsafe to go below 4,500 troops. O'Brien shot back to Milley that when he spoke in public, he spoke for the president.)
Had Milley not resisted the initial 2,500 plan, Trump might not have felt the need to sign the back-channel order. In the view of Trump's mistrusting inner circle, this was typical of Pentagon leadership: Delay key decisions by disputing that strategic meetings had led to consensus, insist the process was still ongoing, and leak apocalyptic scenarios to the media.
These were the tactics Trump allies believed military leaders had perfected to obstruct presidents over the course of decades.
Now — in the face of the Macgregor alternative — the drawdown plan Milley had once scorned was looking like a godsend to the generals. In addition to the 2,500 U.S. troops, there would be thousands of additional U.S. contractors, NATO troops and NATO contractors all remaining in Afghanistan, which was seen as a sufficient force to maintain counterterrorism capabilities.
O'Brien told the president that drawing down to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan was the closest Trump could come to fulfilling his campaign promise while protecting U.S. interests and maintaining leverage in peace negotiations with the Taliban. And he was putting the U.S. on the path to ending the forever war.
And with that, Trump folded on total withdrawal for the last time as president.
Trump administration officials did not brief congressional leaders or key U.S. allies ahead of a Nov. 17 announcement by Miller that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would be reduced from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-January.
To America's allies and lawmakers of both parties this was a shocking break with protocol. But key Trump officials believed the decision would leak if they briefed in advance.
Even so, the plans appeared in the press on Nov. 16, one day before Miller took to the podium at the Pentagon. CNN, which broke the news, reported that the Pentagon had issued a "warning order" to commanders to begin planning the drawdown.
McConnell, livid, took to the Senate floor that day and said the move would "hurt our allies and delight the people who wish us harm" — comparing it to both Obama's withdrawal from Iraq and the "humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975."
The next day, Miller had the unenviable task of briefing members of Congress and U.S. allies after the news had already broken, including his counterparts in Germany and the U.K. He also spoke with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who handled the matter graciously, thanking Miller for the sacrifice so many Americans had made over the past two decades.
While some lawmakers were furious that the U.S. was pulling out at all, Lindsey Graham called O'Brien and other Trump officials to thank them for the way it was handled, clearly aware that the outcome could have been much worse.
Weeks passed, and public attention largely shifted to concerns that Trump was not relenting on his baseless claims of a stolen election — and was in fact turning to even more extreme, conspiratorial voices for advice as he grew increasingly desperate.
The situation inside the senior levels of the Trump administration was also growing more fraught. The tension between the civilian leadership of the Pentagon and the generals was as bad as it had been in living memory.
In a remarkable and previously unreported incident in early December, top Trump administration officials reviewed classified intercepts from the National Security Agency that led them to believe Milley was undercutting the civilian leadership of the Pentagon, according to three sources with firsthand knowledge of the classified documents.
The intercepts included a conversation between an American who had spoken to Milley and a senior Afghan official. The American told the Afghan official that Milley had no confidence in the civilian Pentagon leadership that Trump had installed — a direct shot at Miller, his chief of staff Patel, and the rest of their crew.
Another intercept indicated that senior Afghan officials had been convinced that Trump's generals were going to defy the president's desire for a speedy draw-down and would slow-roll his orders.
The nature of these intercepts led to conversations among senior Trump officials about the potential undercutting of civilian control of the military — a serious, likely fireable issue, but one that took a back seat in the final, chaotic days of the Trump administration.
There was a general lack of interest in being the one who would take these intercepts to the president "because you didn't want to get sucked into some weird scandal and be testifying," said a source familiar with the internal discussions.
Spokesman Col. Dave Butler tells Axios that Milley, who remained Joint Chiefs chairman under President Biden, has approached his job by providing "timely and thorough advice" to civilian leaders, including costs, risks, and benefits.
"General Milley has been, and still is, dedicated to recognizing and following the laws and intent that govern civilian control of the military," Butler says. "He has consciously and deliberately supported civilian control of the military throughout his tenure and before."
On April 14, Biden announced he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
While Trump evidently regretted not pushing the generals harder in the early years of his presidency, he now unsurprisingly seeks credit for Biden's ability to carry out such a move.
The former president tells Axios that he "built a train that couldn't be stopped" — though Biden had long been a skeptic about the merits of remaining at war in Afghanistan.
Trump cites a March 2020 phone conversation with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — believed to be the first conversation between a U.S. president and a Taliban leader — as the reason no U.S. troops were killed in combat in Afghanistan in more than a year.
Trump also claims he told Baradar that if the Taliban launched an offensive, the U.S. would return to Afghanistan and "hit you harder than you've ever been hit before" — a claim Taliban representatives reject out of hand.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid disputes that Trump raised any strongman talk of retaliation during his conversation with Baradar, telling Axios that the president "did not exert pressure nor issue any threats and warnings." He characterizes the phone call as "cordial and normal."
Mujahid also says that Taliban leaders have not spoken directly to Biden or Secretary of State Antony Blinken since the new administration took office, coordinating instead through U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan remains desperate and tenuous. Amid escalating violence, dozens of Afghans are still being killed every week. A recent bomb attack targeted schoolgirls in Kabul, killing more than 80 people.
Looming over Biden's withdrawal is the serious possibility that the Taliban retakes full control of the country and returns it to totalitarian rule.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to identify NBC as the first news organization to report Trump's Situation Room meeting with national security aides on July 19, 2017, not the New York Times.
🎧 Listen to Jonathan Swan on Axios' investigative podcast series called "How it happened: Trump's last stand." A new episode on this particular topic will post soon.
📺 Watch "Axios on HBO" tonight at 6pm ET/PT on all platforms.
About this series: Our reporting is based on multiple interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as direct eyewitnesses and people close to the president. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be formally authorized to disclose. President Trump and other officials to whom quotes and actions have been attributed by others were provided the opportunity to confirm, deny or respond to reporting elements prior to publication.
"Off the rails" is reported by White House reporter Jonathan Swan, with writing, reporting and research assistance by Zach Basu. It was edited by Margaret Talev and Mike Allen and copy edited by Eileen O'Reilly. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo, Aïda Amer and Eniola Odetunde.