PENTAGON - U.S. President Donald Trump Monday announced via Twitter that he has fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service,” Trump wrote Monday.
Esper had been expected to serve through the transition period between now and President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in late January 2021, although rumors of his imminent firing had been swirling around Washington for weeks.
Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, notified Esper of his termination in a phone call on Monday prior to the president’s tweet, a defense official told VOA.
Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will serve as acting secretary of defense, “effective immediately,” according to Trump’s tweets.
Miller, who arrived at the Pentagon shortly after the announcement and met with Esper, is eligible for the acting secretary of defense role through the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which states that the president can select a person in the executive branch who has been confirmed by the Senate to perform the functions and duties of the vacant office in a temporary, acting capacity.
In a final message to the Department of Defense (DOD) late Monday, Esper touted the progress made on implementing the National Defense Strategy, which shifted the Pentagon’s focus toward modernization and near-peer competition with Russia and China.
“Stay focused on your mission, remain steadfast in your pursuit of excellence, and always do the right thing. Following these imperatives will ensure you remain the most ready, respected, and capable military force in the world,” he wrote to service members and DOD civilians.
Trump and Esper’s relationship reportedly has been tense since a rift in June. Days after the president threatened to deploy active-duty forces to quell protests against police violence and racial injustice, Esper publicly declared his opposition to any such move.
Esper told the Military Times in a November 4 interview that he had no intention of quitting but expected he could be fired at some point. An article containing his exclusive interview was published by the news outlet shortly after Trump’s tweet on Monday afternoon.
“My soldiers don’t get to quit,” Esper told the news outlet, “so if I’m going to quit, it better be over something really, really big. And otherwise, look, I’m going to do what I’ve always done, which is try and shape it the best I can.”
Esper has been defense secretary since July 2019. Before he was appointed to that position by Trump, the Army veteran was secretary of the Army from 2017 to 2019.
Esper’s critics, as well as the president, have called him “Yesper,” a nickname about which he has expressed frustration. He told the Military Times that he had preserved his integrity during his tenure without being anyone’s “yes man.”
“Eighteen 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?’”
Reaction to firing
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was “deeply troubled” by the firing, which comes amid a global pandemic and just 72 days before Trump is expected to leave office.
“There is no doubt that our adversaries are already seeking vulnerabilities they can exploit in order to undermine American global leadership and national security during this transition period … and the last thing that our country needs is additional upheaval in the institutions designed to protect our national security,” Democrat Warner said.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in a statement, “The abrupt firing of Secretary Esper is disturbing evidence that President Trump is intent on using his final days in office to sow chaos in our American Democracy and around the world.”
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, thanked Esper for his service on Monday and said he looked forward to working with Miller to ensure that Esper’s prioritization of the National Defense Strategy remains “paramount.”
Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA on Monday that the timing and manner of Esper’s firing was “unfortunate.”
“During the next couple 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,” he said. “This is not a great time to have an acting secretary leading the Pentagon.”
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called Esper “a proven leader” and said Trump’s decision to fire him was an “emotional” and “misguided” act of “self-inflicted instability.”
Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, called the decision “an act of retaliation by a president thinking more about his petty grievances than about the good of the country.”
The Pentagon referred VOA to the White House for comment on the reason for and timing of Esper’s firing.