In a pair of tweets, Trump announced that Christopher Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will serve as acting defense secretary.
“Mark Esper has been terminated,” the president tweeted. “I would like to thank him for his service.”
Miller is an Army Special Forces veteran who served in the White House and Pentagon before taking over the counterterror agency earlier this year. He supports the assertive use of U.S. power abroad against a range of targets, from terror groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda to nations like Iran.
As Trump and his team prepare to hand over power to President-elect Joe Biden in January, national security experts say there’s potential for some international chaos ― whether from American adversaries trying to take advantage of confusion stateside or from Trump administration hardliners trying to take parting shots at favorite targets like Iran. Israeli sources recently told Axios that they anticipate a “flood” of sanctions from the outgoing administration against Iran.
Miller is broadly respected as a career professional and had bipartisan support for his Senate confirmation to his current role, but some lawmakers view him as susceptible to political pressure from Trump. The president’s move against Esper indicates that he wanted someone he perceived as more loyal leading the Defense Department.
Democrats said they were wary of what could come after the move.
“Firing a secretary of defense in the last weeks of a lame-duck presidency serves no purpose and only demonstrates an instability harmful to American national defense,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
NBC News reported last week that Esper had prepared a resignation letter before the presidential election results were final because he was one of the Cabinet members expected to be ousted should Trump win.
A Defense Department spokesman denied that report, tweeting last week that “Esper has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation.”
Esper told The Military Times on Monday that he never had any intention of quitting, though he expected Trump would fire him at some point.
“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,” Esper told the outlet.
“At the end of the day, it’s as I said — you’ve got to pick your fights,” he added. “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.”
Trump has reportedly been unhappy with Esper’s performance for months.
NBC News reported in September that White House officials approached Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie about potentially taking the top spot at the Pentagon should Trump decide to fire Esper.
Esper, who has headed the Defense Department since June 2019, has broken with the president on several occasions. In June, he accompanied the president for an infamous walk to a church near the White House to take photos amid anti-racism protests. After the photos were taken, Esper said he didn’t realize why the president was going to the church and that he tries to stay out of “situations that may appear political.” He also defied Trump’s threat to use active-duty troops to quell the nationwide protests.
A month later, Esper reportedly drew Trump’s ire by effectively barring Confederate flags on military bases.
Esper previously served as secretary of the Army for roughly two years.
Miller, his successor, has helped craft Trump-era changes ― like a secretive new campaign against al Qaeda in Syria ― that show that for all the president’s posturing as an anti-war candidate, he has largely driven hawkish policies abroad.
“Prematurely declaring ‘mission accomplished,’ as we did with the war in Iraq in 2003, is to invite this Hydra-like beast to regenerate,” Miller wrote in The Washington Post earlier this year, in reference to armed extremist organizations. “The only counterterrorism truth is that constant pressure must be maintained on terrorist groups that have the intent or capability to attack us.”
House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith (D-Wash.) on Monday condemned Trump’s decision to fire Esper as “childish” and “reckless.”
“Dismissing politically appointed national security leaders during a transition is a destabilizing move that will only embolden our adversaries and put our country at greater risk,” Smith said in a statement.
Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, praised Esper following news of his ouster.
“Mark Esper has served the nation well under very challenging circumstances,” Thornberry said in a statement, adding that Esper “deserves the gratitude of every American.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misattributed to Esper a remark made by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.