Trump Fires His Embattled Pentagon Chief by Tweet

The abrupt news after Trump’s electoral defeat follows months of tensions between the U.S. president and his secretary of defense.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (from left), President Donald Trump, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (from left), President Donald Trump, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at Summerall Field, Joint Base Myer-Henderson, Virginia, on Sept. 30, 2019. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he fired long-embattled Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a tweet on Monday, just two days after news networks called the U.S. election against the incumbent commander in chief, another move that current and former officials worry could upset an already tumultuous transition to a new administration.

The move comes amid lingering tensions between Esper and Trump. The Department of Defense chief’s decision to publicly oppose using active-duty U.S. troops to quell protests against racial injustice in June and his endorsement of renaming military bases that honor Confederate generals angered Trump and nearly led him to push Esper out earlier. Top aides and senior Republican lawmakers helped convince him to keep Esper in place so the administration did not look to be in chaos ahead of the elections, current and former officials said.

Trump tweeted that Christopher Miller, a former Defense Department official recently confirmed as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, would take over as acting secretary of defense. Under federal vacancies law, the president can appoint another Senate-confirmed official in place of Esper, who some officials in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill had hoped would remain in place after Trump leaves office to ensure a smooth transfer of power.

“Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service,” Trump tweeted. The move marks another Trump firing by tweet, after he removed his embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by surprise two years ago while the top diplomat was traveling in Africa.

Veteran Pentagon officials reacted to the sudden news with a mixture of shock and anger.

“It’s unprecedented, it’s absolutely crazy,” said Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who spent decades working in the Pentagon. “There’s no practical reason to do this, except for personal vengeance.” A defense official said that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows informed Esper of his termination before Trump tweeted the news.

Townsend said Esper’s firing adds a new layer of uncertainty to what the final months of Trump’s presidency will look like, even as the president refuses to concede his electoral loss: “What it shows us is we don’t know what’s going to happen over the next two months when he begins his transition out of office.”

A Pentagon spokesman referred questions about Esper’s termination to the White House. A White House official said that Miller is eligible to serve in the acting role because he is Senate-confirmed.

The plan comes as officials inside the Pentagon and other agencies have anticipated a spate of potential high-profile firings in the wake of a possible Trump defeat in the November election—some of which have already come to pass. The president is also considering sacking his CIA chief, Gina Haspel, who reportedly fell afoul of the president after she opposed declassifying unverified Russian intelligence alleging Democrats tried to create a scandal about Trump’s ties to Russia ahead of the 2016 elections.

On Friday evening, the White House also forced the resignation of the deputy head of the top U.S. foreign aid agency, U.S. Agency for International Development Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick. Officials familiar with the matter said that she was fired so that the acting head of USAID, John Barsa, could take her deputy job and remain de facto head of the agency to get around time limits for officials serving in interim, acting capacities set by federal vacancy laws.

It was not immediately clear if Capitol Hill got a heads-up before the decision, and top Democrats in Congress were quick to slam Trump’s move. “Dismissing politically appointed national security leaders during a transition is a destabilizing move that will only embolden our adversaries and put our country at greater risk,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat. “President Trump’s decision to fire Secretary Esper out of spite is not just childish, it’s also reckless. 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.”

Some experts said firing officials out of spite, even at the tail end of an administration, could cause blowback.

“You’re trying to have as seamless a transition as possible. Don’t do things that make the system more chaotic,” said Mark Jacobson, the assistant dean for Washington programs at Syracuse University who was a Defense Department official during the transition between Presidents Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s administrations. “Our enemies are going to take note of that, they know that now is a particularly vulnerable time.”

All of that could have a compounding effect on a possible Biden administration’s flexibility to set its own course on Pentagon policy after Inauguration Day. “You don’t want to box them into a corner,” Jacobson added.

Townsend said that Trump officials may also be reluctant to aid in a smooth transition to the next administration, for fear of incurring the White House’s wrath.

“At a time like this, to have [Esper’s] firing happen, it makes the atmosphere even more uneasy. If you are a Trump political appointee and you want to do a good transition, you’re going to pull in your reins and become very conservative because you’re afraid he could do that to you,” he said. “It just makes everyone walk on eggshells.”

As Esper has fallen out of Trump’s good graces, loyalists to the president sitting in high-ranking Defense Department roles have attempted to assert themselves over Pentagon policy.

“They can just do whatever they want,” the former senior Trump official said.

In an exit interview with Military Times, Esper—whom Trump himself had mockingly called “Yesper” for his reputation for upholding the White House line—fatefully mused that he could be replaced by someone much more amenable to the president’s whims, or worse.

“I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that —why?” Esper said. “Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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