The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On overseas tour, Pentagon chief strikes a low-profile amid friction at home with President Trump

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper gives a speech last week at a cemetery near Tunis that houses the remains of U.S. soldiers who died during the North African campaign in World War II.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper gives a speech last week at a cemetery near Tunis that houses the remains of U.S. soldiers who died during the North African campaign in World War II. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)
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RABAT, Morocco — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper concluded a tour of countries around the Mediterranean over the weekend, maintaining a low profile as he attempted to steer the Pentagon clear of divisive election politics and advance Defense Department priorities despite friction with President Trump.

Esper, whose differences with the president fueled speculation this summer that he might become the latest senior official to be forced out or resign, met with leaders in Malta, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, calling for a unified response to Russia’s and China’s expansion across the region.

During the five-day trip, Esper made few public remarks and fielded no on-the-record questions from reporters. Officials asked journalists traveling with him to refrain from publicizing news of three out of four stops until the Pentagon chief had moved on to the next destination, an unusual step when a defense secretary is not traveling to a war zone.

It was sharp contrast to a simultaneous trip across the Mediterranean by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who sat down for several TV interviews during visits to Greece, Italy and Croatia, his aides tweeting out his activities in near-real time. The top diplomat has taken an unusual role in publicly campaigning for the president.

In one striking juxtaposition, Pompeo, who at times has ruffled feathers at the Pentagon by appearing to veer into military matters, broke the news about a Navy ship that is being shifted to a U.S. base he visited in Souda Bay, Greece.

Esper’s low visibility appears to form part of his sometimes unsuccessful attempt to shield the military in a hyperpartisan election season and prevent further damaging his own ties with the commander in chief.

As Esper shows some independence, Trump attacks but leaves him in office

Tension between the two men burst into view in June, when the defense chief publicly broke with Trump’s desire to employ troops to quell nationwide protests over racism and police brutality.

Esper, while aligned with Trump on most major policy issues, has made several recent decisions defying White House preferences, from instating an effective ban on Confederate symbols to backing the promotion of an Army officer tied to Trump’s impeachment.

The White House has made little secret of Trump’s disenchantment with Esper, whom the president has publicly derided as “Yesper.” Officials last month said the president had considered firing him since at least June but decided to leave him in place for now.

Since early summer, Esper has taken questions from the media on only a handful of occasions. During one of these sessions, an aide attempted to stop an Associated Press reporter from asking a politically sensitive question, which Esper then declined to answer. Another was an interview with Fox News’s Judge Jeanine.

The Pentagon has also dialed back the frequency of briefings. In July, Esper issued a memo intended to clamp down on officials talking to the media.

During last week’s travels, Esper’s only public remarks were a speech at a cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia, and pleasantries made at meetings with local officials. After Trump tested positive for the novel coronavirus, Esper’s staff posted a tweet wishing the president well but declined to comment further to journalists traveling with him.

Jonathan Hoffman, a spokesman for Esper, said the Pentagon chief was focused on implementing the Pentagon strategy designed to make the U.S. military more competitive and efficient.

“Regardless, the Secretary continues to give public speeches, meet with foreign leaders, conduct town halls and meetings with think tanks and industry, engage with members of Congress, and is very active on social media,” Hoffman added.

“We have found that Secretary Esper is still able to effectuate notable progress inside and outside the building with a less prominent D.C. profile,” he said.

James Carafano, a defense and foreign policy scholar at the Heritage Foundation, said the role of Esper, a former Army officer, congressional staffer and defense industry lobbyist, was bound to be different from that of Pompeo, a former Republican lawmaker who is widely speculated to be a potential future candidate for higher elected office.

Carafano said the fact that defense issues weren’t the subject of significant debate during the campaign provided Esper an opportunity. “It’s a great time to be a Cabinet secretary in the middle of a heated election when your issues aren’t front and center, because you can really focus on your job,” he said.

But David Lapan, a retired Marine who served as spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon, said that while Esper may not want to be asked about using the military against protesters, or other issues that have the potential to pit him against the White House, he could nevertheless find ways to provide information to the public.

“It is especially important that members of the military, their families, our allies and our adversaries understand that the SecDef and DOD are focused on the mission and the challenges and are not distracted by the political churn,” he said. “It’s a time for reassurance and it needs to come from the most senior DOD leaders — the SecDef and the chairman.”

Esper, who became defense chief last summer after a period of leadership upheaval at the Pentagon, has said keeping the military out of politics remains one of his central objectives.

That has proved challenging under Trump, who has repeatedly defied norms governing civil-military relations, intervening in military justice cases, treating troop events like campaign rallies and involving the military in controversial initiatives, including his border wall project and ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries. Just this past week, Trump appeared to suggest that the military or police may have passed on the coronavirus to an aide.

Esper himself has been criticized for being on the wrong side of civil-military norms, drawing condemnation in June for referring to U.S. cities as a “battlespace,” a remark for which he later apologized.

Officials said Esper’s North Africa tour was intended to highlight those countries’ potential to confront security challenges in places including Libya and the Sahel. That is especially important as Pentagon leaders evaluate proposals to reduce the U.S. footprint in Africa to free up forces to better compete with Russia and China.

Despite Esper’s efforts to keep a low profile, even the brief courtesy interactions captured by the media last week offered a glimpse of the issues he faces.

On Wednesday, Esper presented Tunisian Defense Minister Ibrahim Bartagi with a replica of a flintlock pistol used by Gen. George Washington. “This is a symbol of another very important principle that he held dear,” Esper told Bartagi before assembled reporters. “The importance of civil-military relations, civilian control of the military, and the importance of an apolitical military.”

Carol Morello and John Hudson contributed to this report.