President Trump unceremoniously fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper via Twitter on Thursday, sparking yet another round of upheaval at the Pentagon and injecting even more drama into an already tense, uncertain post-election period for the administration and the military.
The president made the abrupt announcement in a midday tweet and officials said Mr. Esper was given just a few minutes’ notice that his firing was imminent. Mr. Trump named National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller as the acting defense secretary, making him the fifth Pentagon chief in less than four years.
Such turnover atop the military is unprecedented in modern U.S. history. The latest personnel change carries even more weight because of the political circumstances that surround it.
Over the weekend, major media outlets called the presidential race for Democrat Joseph R. Biden, and the presumptive president-elect immediately began work on a transition plan that will include the naming of a new defense secretary and nominees to other top posts across the Pentagon.
Democrats slammed the firing, with some even suggesting Mr. Trump wants to install a yes-man at the Defense Department in his final days who would willingly carry out military strikes abroad, purge critics at the Pentagon or acquiesce to other dangerous orders.
For their part, Pentagon officials insisted Monday that the department will continue to run smoothly, and military leaders presented a calm, collected front, despite speculation that more firings in the national security and military ranks could be on the way.
Mr. Trump’s dismissal of Mr. Esper came as little surprise to most observers amid simmering White House-Pentagon tensions, capped by an extraordinary and public clash between them last summer over the use of active-duty troops to quell racial justice protests and riots across the country, a move the Pentagon chief vehemently opposed.
The low-key, 56-year-old Mr. Esper, a West Point graduate, former infantry officer and longtime defense industry executive, had even gone so far as to reportedly draft a resignation letter before last week’s election and conducted a preemptive exit interview with the Military Times, which was published almost immediately after the news broke.
Publicly, Mr. Trump gave no explanation for the move, which historians said was highly unusual so close to the end of a departing administration.
“I am pleased to announce that Christopher C. Miller, the highly respected Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (unanimously confirmed by the Senate), will be Acting Secretary of Defense, effective immediately,” Mr. Trump tweeted.
“Mark Esper has been terminated,” he said. “I would like to thank him for his service.”
In a memo to Pentagon personnel, Mr. Esper said he was proud of the work he accomplished during his tenure. In his interview with the Military Times, he was much more pointed, defending instances in which he stood up to the president.
“I think we’ve been really successful in transforming the department,” Mr. Esper told the Military Times. “And then … preserving my integrity in the process.”
“My frustration is, I sit here and say, ‘Hmm, 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?’”
In addition to their clash over active-duty troops on U.S. soil, Mr. Esper also backed moves inside the military to effectively ban the display of the Confederate flag and an ongoing push to remove the names of Confederate generals from 10 Army bases. On the latter, Mr. Trump publicly vowed to block the changes and seemingly used the issue to appeal to supporters who are wary of such changes.
Still, while reelected presidents often make major personnel shifts, losing presidents have typically kept their Pentagon chiefs in place until Inauguration Day to preserve stability in the name of national security.
It’s clear the relationship between them had soured beyond repair. But analysts say dismissing Mr. Esper now, with just two months until Mr. Biden is expected to be sworn in as commander in chief, is a mistake.
“It is certainly the president’s prerogative to do so. The timing and manner of firing, however, are unfortunate,” said Bradley Bowman, director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “During the next couple of months, we need leaders at the Pentagon who are willing to push back on any bad ideas emanating from the White House and to work closely with President-elect Biden’s transition team.”
Mr. Esper released letters to Mr. Trump and to Defense Department personnel discussing their joint accomplishments Monday. He did not directly thank Mr. Trump for his appointment and signaled in his letter the troops that he had some regrets.
“I step aside knowing that there is much more we could accomplish together to advance America’s national security,” he wrote.
‘God help us’
Democrats were much more aggressive in their rebukes.
“It is concerning that reports show that this firing was an act of retribution by the president, allegedly for Secretary Esper’s refusal to send active-duty military troops to crack down on peaceful demonstrations against police brutality,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Most disturbingly, however, the timing of this dismissal raises serious questions about Trump’s planned actions for the final days of his administration.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, was equally scathing, accusing Mr. Trump of destabilizing the Pentagon at a time when U.S. adversaries might be tempted to exploit a distracted and divided Washington.
The firing, Mr. Smith said, was “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,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Esper also seems concerned about what could happen if the Pentagon is led by someone who will not question Mr. Trump. He said his willingness to oppose the commander in chief is a reason why he remained in the post.
“You’ve got to pick your fights,” he told the Military Times. “Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”
Republicans said little about the change other than to wish Mr. Esper well and assure the American public that there will be no chaos at the Pentagon.
“I want to thank Secretary Esper for his service — for prioritizing implementation of the National Defense Strategy, for thinking critically about how the Pentagon operates, and for always putting our service members first,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.
Mr. Inhofe said he had already spoken with Mr. Miller about pushing forward with the massive defense authorization bill that lawmakers may take up in the coming lame duck session before Mr. Biden takes office.
Mr. Miller, a military veteran who served in the Army’s elite special forces unit, arrives at the Pentagon at a pivotal moment. There are heightened concerns that major U.S. adversaries as China, Russia, North Korea or Iran may seek to exploit the political uncertainty of the American leadership transition by carrying out aggressive moves to expand their regional influence.
The Associated Press reported he arrived at the Pentagon on Monday just as Mr. Esper was learning from White House chief of staff Mark Meadows of his dismissal.
In initial meetings with Joint Chiefs of Staff head Gen. Mark Milley and senior generals, Mr. Miller said he did not plan major immediate changes, the AP reported.
Mr. Miller’s specific views on U.S. strategy toward China, Russia and North Korea have not been publicly documented, although he signaled during an interview last month that he thinks tensions between the U.S. and Iran could escalate suddenly and quickly if the Iranian regime engages in actions deemed too aggressive by Washington.
“I get the sense [the Iranians] understand that there’s a line they can go up to, but if they cross that line, I mean it’s all hands on deck, it’s gonna be really, really bad,” Mr. Miller said during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. Miller is the fifth Pentagon chief of the Trump tenure. Mr. Trump’s first defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, resigned in late 2018 in protest of the administration’s decision to pull U.S. forces from Syria. He was replaced by former Boeing executive Patrick M. Shanahan, who served in a temporary capacity for about six months.
Mr. Shanahan was replaced by Mr. Esper, who also served in a temporary role and had to briefly step down as he underwent Senate confirmation for the permanent job.
During that process, former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer served as acting defense secretary for about a week.
• Guy Taylor, Lauren Toms and Mike Glenn contributed to this report.