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President Donald Trump has fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper following reports Esper was unlikely to remain in the position following the election.
Trump announced Monday via Twitter that he has named Christopher C. Miller, the current director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to replace Esper.
“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,” Trump said. “Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”
In an interview with Military Times following the news of his firing, Esper on Monday shot back at being dubbed as Trump’s “yes man” — leading to his nickname, “Yesper” — at the Pentagon.
“My frustration is I sit here and say, ‘Hm, 18 Cabinet members. Who’s pushed back more than anybody?'” Esper told Military Times.
“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?'”
Esper said his priority throughout his tenure was successfully executing the National Defense Strategy (NDS), adding he believes his legacy will reflect that.
“I guess my top line is, as I look back, I see it — you know, despite a series of crises and conflicts — and yes, occasional tension with the White House — I think we’ve been really successful in transforming the department, implementing my top priority as the NDS, if you will, and then protecting the institution, which is really important to me,” he said. “And then … fourth, I should say, preserving my integrity in the process.”
Esper added, “At the end of the day, it’s as I said — you’ve got to pick your fights,” he said. “I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that —why? Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”
Prior to his role at NCTC, where he was sworn in Aug. 10, Miller, a retired ArmySpecial Forces officer, most recently served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism at the Pentagon, according to his biography.
Some questions have been raised about the validity of Trump’s naming a new defense secretary when policy states that Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist would step into the role in the event of resignation or removal. Those questions have yet to be addressed publicly by the Pentagon.
“There’s currently a Senate-confirmed Deputy Secretary of Defense — David Norquist,” noted Steve Vladeck, University of Texas School of Law professor who specializes in national security legal matters, Monday on Twitter. “Under 10 U.S.C. § 132(b), [Norquist] is supposed to become Acting Secretary in the event of a vacancy. Unless Trump fired him, too.”
Vladeck added, “Miller isn’t eligible to be *Secretary* of Defense because he hasn’t been retired from the military for seven years.”
Jim Mattis, Trump’s first SecDef, required a congressional waiver to permit him to serve in the role because he had retired from service only four years prior to his nomination.
Miller will be Trump’s fifth defense secretary following Esper; Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, who served in the position for a few days during to Esper’s nomination process; Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing Co. executive; and Mattis, a retired Marine general who was confirmed by the Senate to the position in 2017.
Trump’s decision follows reports that Esper drew up his resignation letter ahead of Election Day.
NBC News reported last week that, while it is not uncommon for officials to offer a letter of resignation because of a potential administration change, Esper has been quietly working with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to include language in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act that would rename Army bases honoring Confederate generals — a move he himself has not acted on. Esper in July made the call to ban the Confederate flag displays at bases, but the policy guidance did not include renaming installations.
A rift between the president and his defense secretary first formed in June when Esper stated his opposition to using active-duty troops under the Insurrection Act to quell nationwide protests following the May 25 death in Minneapolis of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer.
Last month, The New York Times described Esper as a “dead man walking” in the corridors of the Pentagon whenever he was there, but he mostly shied away from the spotlight by traveling out of town or overseas in back-to-back visitswith allies and partners. Military.com also traveled with Esper to Colorado and Nevada in July, but he had declined on-the-record interviews.
“All the signals are that he would be on the way out” should Trump win reelection on Nov. 3, and he definitely will be replaced if Vice President Joe Biden is the new president,” Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently told Military.com in an interview.
Cancian said Esper had been involved in multiple situations in which the Pentagon appeared to be out of the loop on surprise announcements from Trump, including proposals for troop withdrawals from Germany and Afghanistan.
“He routinely gets blindsided by things,” Cancian said, while giving Esper credit for a generally good record in managing the Pentagon during a pandemic.
“He’s been a very steady hand” in dealing with a mercurial president, Cancian said, although “he’s very guarded. He’s seen what happened with Mattis.”
In 2018, as Trump became aggravated with Mattis, especially his steadfast commitment to keep troops in Syria, their relationship soured, with the former Marine ultimately resigning later that year.
Miller’s appointment to the Pentagon brings another official who served in the armed forces.
Similar to Esper who served in the Army, Miller began his military career as an enlisted infantryman in the Army Reserve in 1983 before moving to the District of Columbia National Guard as a military policeman, according to his personal bio.
In 1987, he was commissioned as an officer and worked his way into the Special Forces career field, where he “served in numerous command and staff positions within the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne),” his bio states.
He deployed multiple times to both Afghanistan and Iraq; following his retirement from the Army in 2014, Miller worked “as a defense contractor providing clandestine Special Operations and Intelligence expertise directly to the Under Secretaries of Defense for Intelligence and Policy,” it adds.
— Richard Sisk contributed to this report.