Donald Trump fires US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, replaces him with acting Pentagon chief

Jacob Fromer
·6-min read

US President Donald Trump fired Secretary of Defence Mark Esper on Monday, two days after losing his bid for re-election to former vice-president Joe Biden and with little more than two months remaining in his presidency.

“Mark Esper has been terminated,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “I would like to thank him for his service.”

Replacing him as active secretary of defence will be Christopher Miller, director of the US National Counterterrorism Centre, Trump wrote.

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Miller, a combat veteran and a former senior counterterrorism official at the Pentagon, was sworn in to his position at the National Counterterrorism Centre just under three months ago.

“Chris will do a GREAT job!” Trump wrote.

Trump’s firing of Esper so soon after the election and so close to the end of his presidency – which Trump has so far not publicly acknowledged is coming to an end – is a dangerous one, said Representative Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a Democrat from Washington state.

“In the national security community, it is well known that periods of presidential transition leave our country exposed to unique threats,” Smith said in a statement. “Until President-elect Biden is sworn into office next January, it is imperative that the Pentagon remain under stable, experienced leadership.”

“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,” Smith said.

Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, testifies before a House Homeland Security Committee in September. Photo: AFP
Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, testifies before a House Homeland Security Committee in September. Photo: AFP

Representative Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee who is retiring early next year, said in a statement that Esper “served the nation well”, but his spokesman would not say what the congressman’s opinion was of Trump’s decision to fire Esper.

Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said: “I look forward to working with [Miller] to ensure that these priorities remain paramount and to working with President Trump to maintain stability at the Pentagon, particularly as we work to enact the 60th annual National Defence Authorisation Act.”

Others on Capitol Hill expressed concern that the commotion caused by such leadership shuffles could provide a window of opportunity for Beijing to take escalatory actions in such arenas as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“China’s bet would be that a) Trump would be distracted by his election grievances, and b) his national security infrastructure might be hollowed out,” Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, tweeted on Sunday amid growing speculation of Esper’s imminent ousting.

“They would gamble that by the time Biden was sworn in, their move would be a fait accompli and impossible to reverse.”

US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, has expressed worry about national security during Donald Trump’s final months in office. Photo: Getty Images/AFP
US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, has expressed worry about national security during Donald Trump’s final months in office. Photo: Getty Images/AFP

But Bonnie Glaser, an expert in Asia-Pacific security issues, said it was unlikely China would exploit the transition to go so far as seize Taiwan, predicting that President Xi Jinping would not jeopardise his ambition of “national rejuvenation”.

“Taiwan independence isn’t a near-term threat and reunification is a goal, though not an urgent priority,” said Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Beijing would also be wary about taking action against Taiwan or in the South China Sea that might provoke an unbridled response from an outgoing president with nothing to lose, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Chinese military expert.

“The narrative in China is less that the United States is distracted so it wouldn’t get involved, and more that lame-duck presidents are dangerous because they’re not afraid of being held accountable,” said Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University and the American Enterprise Institute.

US defence chief risks being sidelined as White House floats replacements

Miller will be Trump’s fifth Pentagon chief.

It is unclear whether the president will move to formally nominate Miller for the position or leave him as an acting secretary. Even if Miller is nominated, it is also unclear whether the US Senate would rush to confirm him with little more than 10 weeks left until inauguration day on January 20.

Acting secretaries do not have to be confirmed by the Senate and can serve for only 210 days. Observers say because they do not have to go through Senate confirmation, there is a risk they will feel more beholden to the president, and thus less likely to offer honest advice that the commander in chief may not want to hear.

Trump had clashed with Esper over the use of military personnel to quash civil rights protests over the summer.

At the height of the domestic protests, Esper faced widespread condemnation after he and other top officials walked with Trump outside the White House, immediately after law enforcement officers had tear-gassed and removed peaceful protesters from the area. The president had walked through the cleared area to a church, where he posed for photographs holding a Bible.

Esper also publicly contradicted Trump over the president’s desire to invoke an 1807 law known as the Insurrection Act, which would have allowed active duty military troops to crush the protests. Trump was reported at the time to have been upset that Esper conveyed “weakness”.

President Donald Trump is flanked by Attorney General William Barr (left) and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper as they walk from the White House after the area was cleared of protesters on June 1. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS
President Donald Trump is flanked by Attorney General William Barr (left) and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper as they walk from the White House after the area was cleared of protesters on June 1. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS

Commenting after Esper was fired, Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who serves on the Intelligence Committee, said: “Donald Trump fired someone who wouldn’t order US troops to attack peaceful protesters and is replacing him with someone he may think will carry out those orders,” Wyden said. “I opposed Chris Miller’s nomination earlier this year because he refused to promise that intelligence agencies wouldn’t target Americans based on their political views. He should remember that anyone who carries out an illegal order from Donald Trump will be held fully accountable under the law.”

In August, Trump referred to Esper as “Mr Yesper”.

In an interview conducted last week and published on Monday by Military Times, Esper disputed the idea that he was only a “yes man” for 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 told Military Times. “Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’”

From same interview, Esper was quoted as saying: “Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man’. And then God help us.”

Esper also reportedly disagreed with the president over whether it was appropriate to name American military bases after Confederate generals, who had seceded and fought against the United States in the Civil War. NBC News reported last week that Esper was planning to help Congress write legislation to remove their names.

Esper was reported in recent days to have already prepared a resignation letter, but it had been unclear if Trump would go ahead with firing him so close to the end of his term. He was confirmed by the Senate in July 2019 by a vote of 90 to 8.

Additional reporting by Owen Churchill

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