Maj. Gen. Errol R. Schwartz's departure will come in the middle of the presidential ceremony - classified as a national special security event - and while thousands of his troops are deployed to help protect the nation's capital during an inauguration he has spent months helping to plan.
"The timing is extremely unusual," Schwartz said in an interview Friday morning, confirming a memo announcing his ouster that was obtained by The Washington Post. During the inauguration, Schwartz will command not only members of the D.C. Guard but also 5,000 unarmed troops dispatched from across the country to help. He also will oversee military air support protecting Washington during the inauguration.
"My troops will be on the street," said Schwartz, who turned 65 in October. "I'll see them off, but I won't be able to welcome them back to the armory." He said he would "never plan to leave a mission in the middle of a battle."
Unlike in the states, where the governor appoints the National Guard commander, in the District that duty falls to the president.
Schwartz, who was appointed to head the Guard by President George W. Bush in 2008, maintained the position through President Barack Obama's two terms. He said his orders came from the Pentagon in the form of an email that names his interim successor, a brigadier general, who takes over at 12:01 p.m. next Friday.
Army Maj. Jamie Davis, a spokesman at the Defense Department, said Schwartz is classified as a "non-career status employee." He noted that the interim commander "is ready to assume complete mission" and handle the inauguration.
As is customary, Schwartz, like other presidential appointees, submitted a letter of resignation to give the new administration a clean start. He had done so before, but the Obama administration twice declined to accept it.
The Trump transition team made the decision to accept Schwartz's resignation, according to a military official with knowledge of the situation.
Members of Trump's transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Another military official with knowledge of the process said the Trump transition team receives lists of political appointees and can decide which resignations to accept. Army officials declined to comment on that part of the process. All resignations are effective at 12:01 p.m. on Inauguration Day.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) blasted the decision to remove Schwartz, particularly during the inauguration.
"It doesn't make sense to can the general in the middle of an active deployment," Mendelson said. He added that Schwartz's sudden departure will be a long-term loss for the District. "He's been really very good at working with the community, and my impression was that he was good for the Guard."
Schwartz said he will work up until that moment, and then plans to retire from the Army. "I'm a soldier," he said. "I'm a presidential appointee. Therefore, the president has the power to remove me."
Phillip Carter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under Obama, said the incoming administration may have made a decision to accept the resignations of a broad group and not realized Schwartz's role in the inauguration.
Carter, now a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, said the Trump team should have considered each appointee's particular role, "because many of them may have expertise that you want to keep on duty, or at least keep in position until a replacement has been made."
Like other deployments, Inauguration Day will be a complicated one for the D.C. National Guard - at least on paper. Since the District is not a state, its mayor cannot call up Guard members to active duty as a state governor can.
The District must send a letter to the secretary of the Army requesting the support. The District and the Army must then go through a seven-step process to initiate the deployment, during which Guard members carry out duties at the request of the mayor and city homeland security officials.
The two entities have been able to work together to make that happen quickly in response to unfolding natural disasters, such as last year's record January snowfall. During that storm, which dumped 22 inches of snow, the Guard was activated in anticipation of the storm's arrival, and troops helped shuttle officials, plow drivers and supplies back and forth across the city.
Schwartz began his military career in 1976 by enlisting in the Guard, formally called the Militia of the District of Columbia National Guard. He also oversees the Air National Guard, which combined with the Army Guard has an authorized strength of 2,700. He has served in several leadership positions, notably commanding the 372nd Military Police Battalion.
He graduated in 1980 from the University of the District of Columbia with a degree in electrical engineering and received a master's degree in business management from Central Michigan University and in national security strategy from the National Defense University at Fort McNair in the District.
Schwartz said that he is most proud of the Youth Challenge Academy, a school for teenage dropouts run by the Guard with an infusion of federal money. The school, separate from D.C. public and charter schools, is located at the former Oak Hill facility, the District's old juvenile jail. Schwartz said that about 60 percent of the student body have obtained high school diplomas, and some have gone on to college.
"These are kids with high potential," Schwartz said. "They just need to be steered a little bit. That's what guardsmen can do." He said he has told his wife that he might stay active in the school.
"I don't mind walking the halls and knocking on doors wearing a suit and tie," he said.
Changing of the (national) guard: DC commander to step down on Inauguration Day
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.
Pentagon says nothing ‘unusual’ about DC National Guard leader having to step down during inauguration
The leader of the District of Columbia National Guard has been told to step down the minute after President-elect Donald Trump takes office, sparking political controversy about who ordered the decision and the timing of the departure.
Maj. Gen. Errol Schwartz, a political appointee, says the timing is "very unusual,” considering he’ll send Guardsmen out to protect Trump and hundreds of thousands of others on Inauguration Day but must resign the minute after Trump is sworn in Jan. 20 at noon.
“My troops will be on the street,” he told The Washington Post. “I’ll see them off, but I won’t be able to welcome them back to the armory.”
However, the head of the District's National Guard serves at the pleasure of the president, unlike the commanders of state-level National Guard units.
And a senior Defense Department official tells Fox News that the Trump presidential transition team, after learning about the situation, offered Schwartz, a Bush appointee, a few additional days on the job but that he refused.
A person close to the team reportedly said members indeed wanted to keep Schwartz but that the Army pushed for a replacement.
A senior Defense official also told Fox that the Army was neither consulted nor notified about the Schwartz decision.
“The Army leadership had nothing to do with the decision," the official said.
Schwartz reportedly said the final orders came in an email from the Pentagon.
Like hundreds of other political appointees, Schwartz must tender his resignation and leave his post immediately after Trump, a Republican, officially takes office.
But Phil Mendelson, a Democrat and chairman of the D.C. Council, is also questioning the timing of the move.
“It doesn’t make sense to can the general in the middle of an active deployment,” he told The Post.
He also said that Schwartz’s sudden departure will be a long-term loss for the District.
“He’s been really very good at working with the community, and my impression was that he was good for the Guard.”
Schwartz will be replaced by Brig. Gen. William J. Walker, who is in the D.C. National Guard and will be the incoming acting commanding general.