Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday became the first high-profile Cabinet member fired by President Trump in what is expected to be a purge of security officials following the election of former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump announced Esper’s firing in a tweet Monday, saying that his third pick for Pentagon leader would be replaced by Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, “effective immediately.”
“Chris will do a GREAT job!” Trump tweeted. “Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”
Trump and the White House gave no reason for the firing, but Esper had struggled to navigate between his role leading the U.S. military and meeting the president’s demands for political loyalty, so much so that even Trump derided Esper as a yes-man, dubbing him “Yesper.”
But Esper was one of several officials who months ago fell out of favor with the president over disagreements about the politicization of national security and intelligence.
In recent months, Esper noticeably distanced himself from Trump, usually an unforgivable sin to the president. Esper said publicly he did not support using active-duty troops to confront racial-justice protesters this summer, as Trump had threatened. Trump reportedly had to be talked out of firing Esper at the time.
Shortly before the election, reports surfaced that Esper was preparing to resign, though his office late last week insisted he had no plans to leave.
In a Military Times interview Nov. 4, Esper sought to throw off the “Yesper” albatross, saying there were others in the administration who were more fawning toward the president.
“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,” he said. “Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’”
Trump has yet to concede the presidential election publicly as he and his supporters continue to trumpet unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud and file additional lawsuits.
Miller formerly served at the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism and now returns to lead it, though it’s doubtful he could have much impact for the final 70 days or so of Trump’s term.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Esper’s “abrupt” firing serves as “disturbing evidence” that Trump will use his last days in office “to sow chaos in our American democracy and around the world,” calling it “an act of retribution.”
“It is disturbing and dangerous that, at this precarious moment, our military will now be led by an official who has not been confirmed for this position by the Senate,” Pelosi said.
Republican lawmakers also praised Esper’s tenure.
“Mark Esper was an outstanding secretary of Defense,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said in a statement Monday. “His leadership had the support of our military and the American people.”
Esper, a West Point graduate who once served in the 101st Airborne Division, took the top job at the Pentagon in July 2019, ending the longest period the Pentagon had gone without a leader confirmed by the Senate. He replaced acting secretary Patrick M. Shanahan, who resigned ahead of his confirmation hearing after serving in the position for about six months.
Miller, who also advised Trump’s National Security Council as the senior director for Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats, was just sworn in as NCTC director in August.
When Trump first took office, he voiced strong support for the military and prided himself on the number of former military leaders in his administration, calling them “my generals.”
But Trump grew to distrust them over policy clashes, and none lasted to the end of his presidency, including retired four-star Marine Corps Gens. James N. Mattis, his first Defense secretary, and John Kelly, his first secretary of Homeland Security and later chief of staff. He also picked retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who’d been heavily involved in his 2016 campaign, as his national security advisor. Trump fired Flynn just weeks into the job for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about contact with Russian officials.
Esper drew Trump’s ire after implicitly criticizing the president’s threat to use active-duty troops this spring to respond to unrest and protests over injustice and police brutality. Esper’s comments came after he walked with the president across a square in front of the White House to a historic church for photographs. Authorities had used tear gas to disperse protestors for the photo op.
Hundreds gathered in the same spot on Saturday to celebrate after Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris were declared the winners of the 2020 election.
Using active-duty troops for domestic law enforcement, Esper said at a June news conference at the Pentagon, should be “a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”
In August, Trump was asked at a news conference if he’d weighed firing Esper.
“Mark Yesper? Did you call him Yesper? OK, some people call him Yesper,” Trump said, to laughter. “No, I get along with him fine, he’s fine.” But he added, “I consider firing everybody. At some point, that’s what happens.”
The fate of Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who said the walk with Trump across the square was a mistake, remains unclear. Amid outcry over Trump’s politicization of the military, Milley sent a message to military commanders reminding them of their oath to the Constitution, which he said “gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.”
The relationship between Trump and Esper “certainly seemed to be a tense one,” said David Lapan, a former Pentagon and Homeland Security department official. “And, frankly, the president’s made it pretty clear he’s fine with changing people out at will.”
Lapan noted how Esper kept a much lower profile than many Trump political appointees, trying to keep the military out of politics but also himself out of the media “as a way to avoid the ire of the president.” The tightrope act was “on the one hand, understandable because of what we’ve seen,” Lapan said, “but on the other hand, not helpful that a senior leader of the military is effectively silencing himself.”
The damage Trump has done to public perception of the military as an “apolitical institution” will long outlast Mattis or Esper, Lapan said. “It will fall upon the next secretary of Defense to start to repair that damage.”