WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Monday, upending the military’s leadership at a time when Trump’s refusal to concede the election has created a rocky and potentially precarious transition.
Trump announced the decision on Twitter, writing in an abrupt post that Esper had been “terminated.”
The president wrote that he was appointing Christopher C. Miller, whom he described as the “highly respected” director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to be the acting defense secretary. Miller will be the fourth official to lead the Pentagon under Trump.
Two White House officials said later Monday that Trump was not finished, and that Christopher A. Wray, the FBI director, and Gina Haspel, the CIA director, could be next in line to be fired. Removing these senior officials — in effect decapitating the nation’s national security bureaucracy — would be without parallel by an outgoing president who has just lost reelection.
Democrats and national security veterans said it was a volatile move in the uncertain time between administrations, particularly by a president who has made clear that he does not want to give up power and that he would be reasserting his waning authority over the most powerful agencies of the government.
“President Trump’s decision to fire Secretary Esper out of spite is not just childish, it’s also reckless,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. and the chairperson of the House Armed Services Committee. “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.”
Two senior administration officials noted Monday that Trump enjoyed firing people and had only two more months to do so. Esper’s dismissal also gave the president the chance to reclaim some of the postelection headlines, which have been dominated by President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
At the Pentagon, Esper’s departure means that Miller would — if he lasts — see out the end of the Trump administration. Defense Department officials have privately expressed worries that the president might initiate operations, whether overt or secret, against Iran or other adversaries during his last days in office.
“In my experience, there would only be a few reasons to fire a secretary of defense with 72 days left in an administration,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. and a former Pentagon official in the Obama administration, said in a statement.
“One would be incompetence or wrongdoing, which do not seem to be the issue with Secretary Esper,” she said. “A second would be vindictiveness, which would be an irresponsible way to treat our national security. A third would be because the president wants to take actions that he believes his secretary of defense would refuse to take, which would be alarming. Whatever the reason, casting aside a secretary of defense during the volatile days of transition seems to neglect the president’s most important duty: to protect our national security.”
Esper’s downfall had been expected for months, after he took the rare step of disagreeing publicly with Trump in June and saying that active-duty military troops should not be sent to control the wave of protests in U.S. cities.
The defense secretary was aware that he was likely to be fired, but Pentagon officials said he hoped to continue serving as long as possible to try to sustain orderly leadership of the Defense Department. Although Esper had a resignation letter prepared, his allies said he did not think anything was imminent from Trump on Monday.
But the president expressed his ire in the Oval Office on Monday morning, and the White House gave Esper only a few minutes’ advance notice of his firing.
In a two-page letter to Trump obtained by The New York Times, Esper said, “I serve the country in deference to the Constitution, so I accept your decision to replace me.”
Friends and colleagues of the new acting secretary praised Miller’s Army Special Forces background and counterterrorism credentials but expressed surprise that he had been elevated to such a senior position, even in a temporary capacity. And while he is not considered an ideologue, Miller does not have the stature to push back on any precipitous actions that Trump might press in his final weeks in office, colleagues said.
“A move like this probably sends a chill through the senior ranks of the military,” Nicholas J. Rasmussen, a former top counterterrorism official in the Bush and Obama administrations, said in an email. “Not because of anything about Chris Miller personally, though it’s a highly unconventional choice, to be sure. But simply because a move like this contributes to a sense of instability and unstable decision-making at exactly the time when you want to avoid sending that kind of message around the world.”
Miller is a former Army Green Beret who participated in the liberation of Kandahar early in the war in Afghanistan. He also previously served as the top counterterrorism policy official in the National Security Council in the Trump White House. After that job, he briefly served in a top counterterrorism policy role at the Pentagon this year.
It was only in August that Miller was named to replace Russ Travers, who was the acting head of the counterterrorism center.
Upon his arrival at the Pentagon on Monday afternoon, Miller tripped on the stairs and said, “That would have been great, broke my ankle on the way in.”
Miller began his military career as an enlisted infantryman in the Army Reserve in 1983. He also served as a military police officer in the District of Columbia National Guard. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1987 and became an Army Green Beret in 1993.
In addition to his deployment to Afghanistan, he also served in Iraq in 2003, both with the 5th Special Forces Group.
Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor and a Defense Department official during the Obama administration, led a group of 100 current and former national security officials and election experts from both parties this year in exercises to simulate the most serious risks to a peaceful transition of power.
That exercise anticipated an eleventh-hour switch of the defense secretary, particularly if Esper was perceived to suggest to the president that he should accept an election loss.
When Esper broke with Trump in June on deploying active-duty troops to U.S. cities, the secretary’s spokesman tried to walk back the damage, telling The New York Times that Trump did not want to use the Insurrection Act either, or he would have invoked it already. White House officials disagreed.
Esper, 55, a former secretary of the Army and a former Raytheon executive, became defense secretary in July 2019, after Trump withdrew the nomination of Patrick M. Shanahan, the acting defense secretary, amid an FBI inquiry into allegations from Shanahan’s former wife that he had punched her in the stomach. Shanahan denied the accusations.
Shanahan had been standing in for Jim Mattis, who resigned as defense secretary in 2018, citing his own differences with the president.
Esper had taken pains to hew to the Trump line during his tenure. But concern over invoking the Insurrection Act to send troops to quell civil unrest across the country was deep in the Pentagon. Under heavy public criticism, Esper ultimately broke with the president.
Trump has referred to Esper as “Mr. Yesper.” Ironically, it was the defense secretary’s public break with the president during a news conference in June that infuriated Trump to begin with. Those comments came after Esper had accompanied Trump on his walk across Lafayette Square outside the White House, where protesters had been tear-gassed, prompting condemnation from former military and civilian Defense Department officials.
By midsummer, Esper was walking a fine line to push back on Trump’s other contentious positions involving the military.
The Pentagon, without once mentioning the word “Confederate,” announced in July that it would essentially ban displays of the Confederate flag on military installations around the world.
After the events in June, Esper avoided the news media and kept a low profile to prevent being pulled into election politics.
He traveled often beginning in early summer, including overseas trips to North Africa, the Middle East and India. When he did speak in public, either abroad or in Washington, it was often in prerecorded remarks on safe subjects (criticizing China and Russia on the Africa trip) or in friendly venues (a session on military readiness at The Heritage Foundation, where Esper had served as the organization’s chief of staff).
Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, called Esper five minutes before the president’s Twitter post to tell him he had been fired. Esper was still at the Pentagon cleaning out his desk Monday afternoon when Miller arrived, administration officials said. It was unclear if the two men spoke; Miller met with Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Yet on the single biggest issue of 2020 — the coronavirus pandemic — history may show that Esper has, by far, outperformed his boss, who largely refused to wear a mask and contracted the coronavirus during an outbreak at the White House. Esper, by contrast, has strictly adhered to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on wearing a mask when unable to keep a recommended social distance.
At a Pentagon virtual town-hall-style meeting, the defense secretary responded to a sailor on the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford who said that the required social distancing aboard the ship was hurting morale.
“It is tedious — I understand that,” Esper said. “But I think it’s showing, in terms of the Navy’s results in terms of infection rates, that they’re doing a very good job.”