The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump fires Defense Secretary Mark Esper

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, speaking with President Trump in May, struggled at times to achieve his stated goal of protecting the military from politicization.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, speaking with President Trump in May, struggled at times to achieve his stated goal of protecting the military from politicization. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Monday, ousting his fourth Pentagon chief and stoking uncertainty as the nation navigates a chaotic transition marked by an incumbent who is refusing to concede.

“Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service,” the president said on Twitter, making a sudden but widely anticipated move that underscored his insistence on absolute loyalty from top advisers even as he contests the outcome of the Nov. 3 election.

Trump said Christopher Miller, who was recently named director of the National Counterterrorism Center, would immediately become acting defense secretary. “Chris will do a GREAT job!” Trump wrote.

Esper’s firing plunges the Pentagon into a new period of leadership upheaval as it tries to manage an unusual transition period fraught with political tensions and potential security risks. Democrats and independents criticized the decision, saying the abrupt change could endanger American security at an already vulnerable moment.

President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper in a Nov. 9 tweet, marking the fourth Pentagon chief the president has let go during his administration. (Video: Reuters)

The move comes as the Trump administration refuses to allow President-elect Joe Biden’s team to launch its work, increasing the likelihood of a disorderly transition as the country hurtles toward the Jan. 20 inauguration and grapples with a sharp worsening of the coronavirus crisis.

In a letter to Trump on Monday, Esper said he accepted the president’s decision to replace him.

“I have served these last few years . . . in full faith to my sworn oath to support and defend the constitution, and to safeguard the country and its interests, while keeping the department out of politics and abiding by the values Americans hold dear,” he said.

An Army veteran and former weapons lobbyist who was confirmed as defense secretary in July 2019, Esper was mostly aligned with his commander in chief on major foreign policy issues but had clashes with Trump over his steps to draw the military into partisan politics.

Chief among those occurred in June, when Trump demanded that thousands of troops be dispatched on the streets of Washington amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act to use active-duty service members against demonstrators, but Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed back, concerned it would look like martial law.

Two officials, who like several others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment to the news media, said Esper’s public opposition to using troops in June drew the most fierce response from the president that they had ever seen.

While aides talked Trump out of firing Esper that week, the president regularly raised the issue throughout the campaign season, believing the defense chief was trying to embarrass him and damage his reelection prospects, the officials said. In recent months, Esper has rarely seen the president.

One former senior administration official said that Esper often asked for advice on how to deal with the president and “knew he was going to be fired for many months.” The former official said Esper frequently complained that Trump was not listening to him and was agitated when he was around.

Two officials said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows called Esper about five minutes before Trump posted his Twitter message to inform him of the president’s decision.

John F. Kelly, the former chief of staff, said Esper had “made the decision to stay loyal to the law and constitution and paid the price.”

“The irony is that the president derided him as ‘Mark Yesper’ and the reason that he got fired is that he wasn’t,” said Eric Edelman, a former top Pentagon official under President George W. Bush. “It’s mean-spirited vengeance and vindictiveness, and he’s doing it because he can.”

Esper’s departure may be the first in what some officials say could be a series of senior-level ousters, possibly including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, in a presidential score-settling now that the election is over.

In recent days, the Trump administration has also fired the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and forced out the No. 2 official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, a move apparently aimed at keeping the agency’s head, a Trump appointee, in place. John McEntee, director of the Presidential Personnel Office, has told political appointees at some other agencies that they will be fired if they are caught looking for jobs, according to an administration official familiar with the matter.

Trump’s move against Esper was interpreted largely as vengeful, but the substance of his dispute with Esper — a disagreement over the appropriate use of U.S. military force in the homeland — prompted concerns that the president could be firing his defense secretary to remove an obstacle to similar planned actions as he contests the election. His ouster came as Attorney General William P. Barr gave federal prosecutors authorization to pursue voting “irregularities” despite the administration’s failure to substantiate earlier claims.

Responding to Esper’s firing earlier in the day, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former Pentagon official, raised the possibility that he may have been forced aside “because the President wants to take actions that he believes his Secretary of Defense would refuse to take, which would be alarming.”

Esper took over amid earlier upheaval in 2019, after then-acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan abruptly resigned in the midst of preparations for his confirmation hearing. Shanahan served in an acting capacity for six months after his predecessor, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, resigned over disputes with Trump about military alliances and other matters. Richard V. Spencer, then the Navy secretary, served as acting defense secretary for a week while Esper underwent Senate confirmation.

Since his clash with Trump in June, Esper presided over the military’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, sought to take steps to address racial and gender discrimination, and announced troop cuts in line with Trump’s foreign policy goals. But he also continued to subtly defy the president on matters that Pentagon officials see as a threat to the military’s status as a nonpartisan institution.

In July, Esper issued a de facto ban on the display of the Confederate battle flag on military bases and stated openness to renaming Army posts that recognize Confederate officers who fought to preserve slavery. Trump angrily tweeted that he would not allow bases to be renamed but did not overturn the ban.

But Esper also struggled at times to achieve his stated goal of protecting the military from politicization.

In the same June week that he broke with Trump over the use of active-duty troops to restore order, he referred to U.S. cities as a “battlespace,” a remark for which he apologized. He also drew criticism for appearing alongside Trump for a photo at St. John’s Church near the White House shortly after uniformed personnel cleared protesters from the area.

It was not immediately clear whether the Trump administration would seek Senate confirmation for Miller, an Army Special Forces veteran with more than 30 years of government service, before Biden takes office in January.

Miller previously oversaw Special Operations policy at the Pentagon and served as a top counterterrorism official at the White House National Security Council, where he focused on pressuring the Islamic State, hostage recovery and hunting down the remnants of al-Qaeda’s leadership. On his watch, the U.S. military killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

While in uniform, Miller was part of the first deployment of American Special Operations troops to Afghanistan in 2001 and to Iraq in 2003.

Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps general with extensive experience preparing nominees for Senate confirmation, said he did not expect the appointment to present any legal issues because Miller was already confirmed by the Senate before being sworn in for his previous job in August.

But some analysts and politicians warned that the shuffle at the top of the Pentagon was ill-timed and dangerous, citing geopolitical crises that have required the engagement of national security officials during past presidential transitions.

The Iranian hostage crisis continued to play out during the transition from President Jimmy Carter to President Ronald Reagan in 1980. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, occurred during the transition from Reagan to President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Four years later, Bush ordered U.S. troops into Somalia as part of a United Nations mission during the transition from Bush to Bill Clinton.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called the firing a destabilizing move that will embolden adversaries and puts the United States at greater risk.

“Until President-Elect Biden is sworn into office next January, it is imperative that the Pentagon remain under stable, experienced leadership,” Smith said in a statement. “It has long been clear that President Trump cares about loyalty above all else, often at the expense of competence, and during a period of presidential transition competence in government is of the utmost importance.”

One Republican official who works in national security, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, called Trump’s decision “irresponsible and petty.”

Mark Cancian, a former Marine officer and White House budget official, said a possible confirmation effort could prove an uphill battle for Miller, who only several months ago was assigned to a mid-level Pentagon role.

“He doesn’t have that national reputation,” Cancian said.

Ellen Nakashima, Karoun Demirjian, Alex Horton and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.