Trump fires Esper as defense secretary 6 days after election


Washington — President Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper over Twitter on Monday, installing the head of the National Counterterrorism Center as acting secretary less than a week after the election.

“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 wrote. “Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”

The defense chief had been at odds with the president for months, and reports have swirled for several weeks that Mr. Trump was preparing to fire him after the election. An NBC News report last week that Esper had prepared a letter of resignation prompted a denial by the Pentagon, with a spokesperson saying he had been no plans to step down. 

Esper publicly contradicted Mr. Trump over the administration’s response to protests against racial injustice over the summer, saying in June that he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military troops to the streets to quell unrest.

“The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” he said as protests over the police killing of George Floyd roiled cities across the country. “We are not in one of those situations now.”

His comments came days after a contentious Oval Office meeting in which Mr. Trump demanded 10,000 active-duty troops be deployed immediately, according to a senior administration official who described the events at the time. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley objected to the demand, and later encouraged governors to call up their own National Guard forces to eliminate the need for troops.

Milley and Esper appeared alongside the president outside a church near the White House for a much-criticized photo-op with the Bible. Police used tear gas to violently remove peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Park to clear the way for the president, who was flanked by the defense chief, the Joint Chiefs chairman and other administration officials. Esper and Milley were apparently unaware of the president’s intentions when they joined him.

In an interview with The Military Times conducted November 4 and published Monday after news of his firing, Esper defended his tenure at the Pentagon and said he does “everything I can to try and stay apolitical, trying to stay out of situations that may appear political.”

“And sometimes I’m successful at doing that. And sometimes I’m not as successful,” he added.

The White House disputed the characterization of the earlier Oval Office meeting at which Esper rebuffed the president’s demands for troops, but Esper’s public comments opposing the use of the Insurrection Act several days later were not well-received at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointedly declined to say the president still had confidence in his defense secretary.

“With regard to whether the president has confidence, I would say, if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper, I’m sure you all will be the first to know,” McEnany said at a briefing on June 3.

After the public exchange with the White House, Esper largely stayed out of the public spotlight. He last held a briefing at the Pentagon in July and embarked on a series of foreign trips. 

In August, Mr. Trump derided Esper as “Yesper” when asked if he was considering firing him, an apparent reference to critics’ contention that Esper was a “yes-man.”

“I consider firing everybody,” the president told reporters. “At some point, that’s what happens.”

In his Military Times interview, Esper disputed the notion that he was a “yes-man.”

“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 said. “Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’ “

David Martin contributed reporting.

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