Donald Trump has fired his defence secretary, Mark Esper, in the latest sign that the transition to a new Biden administration in January is going to be turbulent on both domestic and foreign fronts.
Esper was fired by tweet on Monday afternoon, with the president declaring he was “pleased to announce that Christopher C Miller, the highly respected director of the National Counterterrorism Center (unanimously confirmed by the Senate), will be acting secretary of defense, effective immediately.
“Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”
Esper had been at odds with Trump on a number of issues, most importantly his insistence at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer that there were no legal grounds to deploy active-service troops on the streets of US cities.
He was also working with Congress on legislation to rename US army bases named after Confederate generals. In a final interview Esper predicted that he would be followed by a “yes man”, adding “And then God help us.”
Miller arrived at the Pentagon on Monday amid questions about the legality of his appointment. By law, the deputy secretary of defence, currently David Norquist, would become acting secretary in the event of a sudden departure at the top. Furthermore, the law requires that a secretary of defence to have been out of active duty military service for seven years. Miller, a former Green Beret, only left the military in 2014.
The law can be sidestepped by a vote in Congress, as was done for Esper’s predecessor James Mattis, a retired marine.
In the face of Trump’s widely reported fury of his intransigence, Esper stopped giving press briefings in the Pentagon in July. He is reported to have written his resignation letter before the election, and Trump may have moved abruptly to prevent his defence secretary from taking the initiative.
The president insisted he fired Mattis in December 2018, even though Mattis’s critical resignation letter had been widely circulated.
“The abrupt firing of Secretary Esper is disturbing evidence that President Trump is intent on using his final days in office to sow chaos in our American democracy and around the world,” the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said.
In an interview with Military Times given the day after the election and published on Monday, Esper said he was proud of the occasions he stood up to Trump, angrily rejecting the nickname of Yesper, used by critics who saw him as too subservient to Trump.
“My frustration is I sit here and say, ‘Hm, 18 cabinet members. Who’s pushed back more than anybody?’ Name another cabinet secretary that’s pushed back,” Esper said. “Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?”
He claimed success in “protecting the institution, which is really important to me” and “preserving my integrity in the process”.
“At the end of the day, it’s as I said – you’ve got to pick your fights,” he added. “I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that – why? Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”
“This is purely an act of retaliation by a president thinking more about his petty grievances than about the good of the country,” said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defence and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “It will make the transition to a new administration even more difficult. The message it sends around the world is that Trump is going to continue his disruptive policies for the rest of his time in office.
Esper may not be the last head to fall in the national security leadership. CNN cited an unnamed senior official that Esper feared the directors of the FBI and CIA, Christopher Wray and Gina Haspel, would be next to go.
Though Trump has not conceded defeat in the presidential election, Miller will only have a little more than two months in the role before Joe Biden enters the White House.
Esper was Trump’s second permanent secretary of defence, after Mattis, a retired US Marine Corps general who resigned in late 2018. Mattis was succeeded by Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who spent months in the role but was not formally confirmed by the Senate.
Trump came close to firing Esper on 3 June when the former Raytheon arms executive publicly contradicted the president over the potential use of the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military units against protests in Washington and other cities.
Esper said the circumstances did not justify the use of the act, which can empower a president to send troops into states against the wishes of local authorities. Trump had threatened to invoke the law two days earlier. Following Esper’s remarks, the White House noted it was a decision for the president alone.
Esper had also given orders for a battalion of the 82nd Airborne Division and military police units to return to base after they had been flown to the Washington area. He reversed the withdrawal order after visiting the White House, but the troops were withdrawn a few days later.
According to reports quoting administration sources at the time, Trump’s aides advised him against firing his second defence secretary, and Esper was urged not to offer his resignation by his own advisers. According to the Wall Street Journal, he had already begun to draft a resignation letter.
Esper and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, were heavily criticised by former senior defence officials and military leaders, for appearing alongside Trump on 1 June, at a photo op outside a church near the White House, after the surrounding area had been cleared by police and other federal security forces using teargas, mounted police and baton charges.
Milley later apologised for his appearance, saying he should not have been there.
In a third source of friction, Esper said he was open to discussion about the renaming of military bases named after Confederate army officers. The White House had ruled out any change to the names.
Esper became defence secretary in July 2019, succeeding acting secretary Shanahan. Shanahan had taken over following Mattis’s resignation, who left the administration over Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies who had led the fight against the Islamic State.
After a long silence, Mattis accused Trump of abuse of executive office and making a “mockery of the constitution” in the administration’s response to the George Floyd protests.