WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump terminated Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday, days after his election loss to Joe Biden and following a series of clashes between Esper and Trump over the withdrawal of U.S. forces from key bases abroad, using active-duty troops to quell domestic protests and banning Confederate emblems from military installations.
Trump made the announcement on Twitter.
“Mark Esper has been terminated,” Trump tweeted. “I would like to thank him for his service.”
He named Christopher Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center as acting defense secretary.
The tweet was a sign that Trump plans to be active for the next two-and-a-half months, even as he contests the election.
That includes personnel moves. Trump is considering dismissing FBI Director Christopher Wray, aides said; they also expect CIA Director Gina Haspel to depart.
Esper, 56, had been serving as Army secretary when Trump chose him in July 2019 to replace Patrick Shanahan who had resigned as acting Defense chief after USA TODAY reported about his tumultous personal life. Esper’s tenure at the Pentagon was packed with controversy and danger: Trump’s decision to intervene in the military justice system to avert penalties for troops accused of war crimes; the Navy’s firing of Capt. Brett Crozier after he sought aid for his COVID-19-stricken aircraft carrier; and the targeted killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani that prompted a counterattack that wounded more 100 troops.
The relationship between Trump and Esper began unraveling quickly this summer. Trump went so far as mock his name in a briefing with reporters, saying, “Some people call him ‘Yesper,'” a dig at Esper for what had been seen as his willingness to accommodate Trump.
Trump has been pushing for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and from bases located in Germany and South Korea, longtime allies. On July 29, Esper announced that 11,000 U.S. troops would be leaving Germany, relocating to U.S. and Italian bases.
Esper had portrayed the move as a strategic move that afforded the Pentagon greater flexibility in confronting adversaries such as Russia and China. Trump demolished that explanation within an hour, telling reporters that Germany was “delinquent” in its payments to NATO.
Esper also differed with Trump over the display of Confederate emblems and names at military installations. Trump slapped him down after Esper had expressed openness to renaming 10 military bases named after Confederate generals.
And Esper circumvented Trump on display of the Confederate battle flag at U.S. military installations. Trump has called shows of the flag a matter of free speech and not racism. Esper established a rule that relegated displays of flags to those approved by the Pentagon. The Confederate flag did not make the list.
After protesters marched in cities across the country, including Washington, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Trump urged a crackdown.
Esper referred to American streets as battle space that governors needed to dominate, a phrase he later said he regretted. But he resisted invoking the Insurrection Act that would have allowed active-duty troops, some poised in June on the outskirts of Washington, to quell disturbances.
Trump’s June 1 address promising to be a “law and order” president came as officers used projectiles, gas canisters and shields to force hundreds of protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House, drawing criticism that excessive force was used on peaceful demonstrators. The president then walked through the square to St. John’s Church, where he posed for photos with a Bible.
Esper initially said he was unaware he would be going with Trump to the church, but revised his comment later to say he was aware of the visit but not what Trump planned to do there.
Asked June 3 if Trump had lost confidence in Esper over that issue, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany offered a tepid endorsement.
“As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper,” she said.
“I did know that we were going to church, I was not aware that a photo-op was happening,” Esper said.
It was not the first time Trump and Esper have differed sharply and publicly.
Esper split from Trump in January 2020 over whether the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani was due to evidence of an “imminent threat” to embassies. Trump claimed there was evidence of a threat to four U.S. embassies, but Esper said he hadn’t seen specific evidence of threats to embassies but agreed they were potential targets.
Last year, Esper said he urged Trump not to intervene in the cases of three military members who were accused or convicted of war crimes. Pentagon officials were reportedly caught off guard by a Fox News report that Trump would offer pardons in those cases.
Esper who began his official role as defense secretary in July 2019, was previously Army secretary and acting defense secretary. Esper was Trump’s second choice to step into the seven-month period of uncertainty left when former defense secretary Jim Mattis resigned in late 2018 amid bitter disagreements over foreign policy.
Esper came into the job saying his priorities were to modernize the Pentagon and balance the “growing threats” posed by China and Russia, and regional threats by Iran and North Korea. He said he would “maintain pressure” on terrorist groups, and work to upgrade weapons systems.
He served in the Army for more than 20 years, including 10 on active duty, before becoming a lobbyist. Esper was defense contractor Raytheon’s vice president of government relations.
Another point of friction involved the promotion of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. An expert on Ukraine assigned to the National Security Council at the White House, Vindman testified at Trump’s impeachment inquiry that his July 2019 phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky was improper. Trump had pressured the president of Ukraine to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival.
After his acquittal, Trump branded Vindman “insubordinate” and had him fired. Vindman’s promotion to colonel appeared to languish until early July when Esper approved the list with Vindman’s name on it and forwarded it to the White House. Vindman announced his intention to retire days later.
Miller is a former Pentagon official who has led the counterterrorism center since August. Prior to that he had been a senior official at the Defense Department for special operations and combating terrorism.
Miller is a combat veteran in Army Special Forces. He took part in the initial attacks in Afghanistan that overthrew the Taliban in 2001 after the 9/11 terror attacks. He lives in Virginia with his wife and has three grown children.