Trump’s Defense Secretary Finds His Voice in Iran Crisis

Overshadowed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo until now, the relative newcomer Mark Esper has played a central role in the U.S. response.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the White House on Aug. 29, 2019. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

In the days after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the killing of the most powerful Iranian commander in a drone strike on Iraqi soil, it was the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who blitzed the airwaves. His counterpart in the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, was notably silent.

But since the U.S. military began bracing for retaliation from Tehran, which came Tuesday night in the form of a widespread missile attack on U.S. and coalition targets across Iraq, Esper has made his presence known. The defense secretary—who served in the 101st Airborne Division in the Gulf War—appeared on CNN and in the Pentagon briefing room in the hours before the attack; the next day, he briefed the full House and Senate before huddling with reporters back at the Pentagon. 

Esper’s relative silence in the days after the strike on Iran’s Qassem Suleimani raised eyebrows in some circles in Washington, prompting criticism that he was ceding power to longtime Iran hawk Pompeo at a crucial moment when many feared all-out war. Indeed, experts noted that Pompeo has the incumbent’s advantage in the Trump administration, enjoying an already established relationship with the president. And, as the senior cabinet member, technically Pompeo outranks his former West Point classmate.   

But former and current officials say that just because Esper—who spent the first two years of the Trump administration as Army secretary—is not a familiar face on cable news does not mean he is not engaged in decision-making. Since last spring when Iran began lashing out in response to the U.S. maximum pressure campaign, Esper has ordered tens of thousands of additional forces to the region, including missile defense systems, warships, and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division.

Esper has come out forcefully in recent days as the face of the administration’s Iran policy, urging the regime to negotiate but stressing that the United States is prepared to defend itself.

“The United States is not seeking a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one,” Esper said Jan. 7. “We are seeking a diplomatic solution, but first this will require Iran to de-escalate.”

Behind closed doors, sources say Esper has earned the president’s trust. On average, the two talk on the phone nearly daily—and in recent days the defense secretary has quarterbacked the rapid response to Iranian threats, defense officials said. In photos the White House released on Wednesday, Esper could be seen seated directly to Trump’s left in the Situation Room as the president’s national security team watched the incoming attack. Pompeo, by contrast, was two seats down from the president on the opposite side of the table.  

As it became clear that Iran was preparing to attack U.S. troops in the region, Esper made a deliberate effort to appear on camera to send a message of reassurance, one defense official said. “He wanted to send a message to the force who were worried about attacks,” the defense official said.

Esper has earned Trump’s trust particularly by coming into the job without an agenda and striving to present options that meet the president’s goals, the defense official added.

Defense officials say the decision to have Pompeo, not Esper, appear on the morning shows after the strike on Suleimani was a deliberate one designed to ratchet down tensions as the region reeled from the attack.

“After a defensive strike, the right person to put out there is the nation’s top diplomat,” said a second defense official.

Others noted that it is traditionally the job of the secretary of state, not the defense secretary, to represent the United States on the world stage—perhaps most of all in times of conflict.

“My personal view has always been when it comes to military action, the Department of Defense should keep a low profile,” said Arnold Punaro, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a retired Marine general who has assisted with defense secretary transitions for years. “Their job is to execute, their job is to be worried about the troops, their job is to be ready for unexpected consequences.”

Dana White, former chief Pentagon spokesperson under previous Defense Secretary James Mattis, said that in most previous administrations, even during military strikes, the State Department has taken point on messaging—though she noted that the dynamic between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell under former President George W. Bush’s administration was an exception.

“The secretary of state has always been more prominent than the secretary of defense,” White said, pointing to a range of former leaders from the prolific former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to a series of “policy wonk” defense secretaries under Obama—Leon Panetta and Ash Carter in particular. 

“In some ways, maybe this could be a return to normal,” she said.

Since he took the reins of the Defense Department in July 2019, Esper has kept a notably low profile. In his nearly six months as Pentagon chief, he has toed the administration’s line and avoided contradicting the president. He has focused his efforts inward rather than outward, making reforming the Pentagon and cutting budgets his top priorities. Rather than driving a particular agenda in the Middle East—an accusation leveled at Pompeo and John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor—Esper aims to shift the department’s focus to the Pacific. 

There is also a clear personality difference between Esper and Pompeo. A former congressman, the secretary of state is bombastic and sometimes abrasive. Esper, by contrast, is very much an Army infantry officer in his presentation: stolid and direct, choosing his words carefully.

This dynamic has caused some concern in the Pentagon and beyond that Esper views the role of the defense secretary too narrowly and is not asserting himself in foreign-policy discussions out of deference to Pompeo, who has strong opinions on Iran, and Robert O’Brien, the national security advisor. 

“It’s not that he’s being pushed around—it’s that he doesn’t even push back. That’s not his approach, and some people find that very frustrating,” said one former senior defense official, noting that Esper leans on his military counterparts, particularly Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for advice. 

“Esper is seen as an excellent manager, [but] he is not a disruptor, he is not a change agent.”

The former senior official also noted that compared to many former Pentagon chiefs, Esper has relatively limited foreign-policy chops. He has a range of experience in the military, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill, but all at a more junior level, the former official said, citing his time as a congressional staffer, deputy assistant secretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, and Army secretary under Trump. 

“I think Pompeo is definitely the dominant force between the two,” said one administration official. “Esper is focused on details and Pompeo on big picture.”

But those who know him say Esper does not shrink from contradicting the president. After Trump drew criticism for threatening to strike cultural sites in Iran, Esper pushed back, noting that targeting cultural sites is against international law and that the Pentagon “will follow the laws of armed conflict.” 

Other experts pushed back on the notion that Esper is playing second fiddle to Pompeo.

“I know his style and I can guarantee you he is no shrinking violet,” said Punaro, adding that Esper has a “backbone of steel.” “The notion that somehow he is a get along, go along kind of guy—that’s not Mark Esper.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman