President Trump on Monday announced he had fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a stunning move that comes days after Joe Biden was projected to have won the presidential race.
"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 in a series of tweets. "Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service."
Esper had long been seen as out the door, regardless of who won the election. But firing him now gives Trump a chance to flex his executive powers at a time he is trying to project strength amid his electoral defeat.
It also raises questions about the military chain of command during a fraught time in the United States.
The Pentagon declined a request for comment, referring questions to the White House. The White House did not offer comment.
Trump and Esper have had a rocky relationship since the summer’s nationwide racial justice protests. During the height of the protests, Trump threatened to deploy active-duty troops to quell the demonstrations. Esper responded by holding a press conference at the Pentagon announcing his opposition to deploying troops.
Esper’s public split reportedly angered Trump so much that he had to be talked out of firing the Defense secretary then.
In August, Trump publicly signaled his displeasure with Esper, saying that he "considers firing everybody" when asked whether he would fire his Defense chief.
Trump also derided Esper as “Yesper,” a nickname that other Pentagon officials had reportedly given the Defense secretary for being too deferential to the president.
Talk that Trump could fire Esper picked up again in the days after Tuesday’s presidential election as it seemed increasingly likely that Biden had won.
The Pentagon last week pushed back on reports speculating about Esper’s fate, with chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman saying that Esper “has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation.”
In an interview with Military Times published Monday after he was fired but conducted last week, Esper said he never intended to resign but was expecting his tenure to end soon.
Esper defended his legacy implementing the National Defense Strategy that calls for a greater focus on China and Russia and expressed agitation at his “Yesper” nickname.
“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,” Esper told Military Times. "Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’ "
“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.”
National security experts and some lawmakers have warned about the dangers of having a rudderless Pentagon during the presidential transition period if U.S. adversaries such as Russia and China try to cause trouble.
In addition to speculation about Esper, questions have also swirled about the fate of other national security leaders, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
“The disarray of the lame duck Trump White House, especially in the national security space, could be staggering. And our adversaries may try to take advantage,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted Sunday.
“Like I said yesterday. Trump is creating a dangerously unstable national security environment during this transition period. Adversaries are watching,” Murphy added in a tweet Monday after Trump fired Esper.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) called the ouster during the transition period “destabilizing.”
“President Trump’s decision to fire Secretary Esper out of spite is not just childish, it’s also reckless,” Smith said in a statement. “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.”
Esper had been Defense secretary since 2019, replacing James Mattis, who resigned in December 2018 over disagreements about Trump’s Syria policy.
Mattis resigned after Trump tried to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, a move defense officials warned would leave the United States’ Kurdish partners vulnerable to attack and create a vacuum in which ISIS could resurge.
Trump eventually backtracked on the withdrawal amid considerable backlash from GOP lawmakers. He is poised to leave office with about 500 troops in Syria.
Miller, who Trump said will serve as acting Defense secretary, has been director of the National Counterterrorism Center since August. The Senate confirmed him in a voice vote that month, though his nomination was not without hiccups. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) placed a hold on him and another nominee for months as the senator pushed for more information on Trump’s firing of intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson and State Department Inspector General Steven Linick.
Miller previously served as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism, and before that, worked on counterterrorism in the Trump’s National Security Council.
Photos and video showed Miller, wearing a mask, arriving at the Pentagon about an hour after Trump’s tweet on Monday.
Installing Miller as acting Defense chief leapfrogs over Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist, who is in line to fill the role under the Vacancies Reform Act, which Trump has routinely flouted.
Questions are also being raised about whether Miller’s appointment violates the law requiring a seven-year period between retiring from active military duty and becoming Defense secretary. Miller retired from the Army in 2014. In 2017, Congress approved a waiver to allow Mattis, who retired from active duty in 2013, to be Pentagon chief.
The firing also means Trump is ending his tenure with his fourth acting Defense secretary in less than two years.
After Mattis resigned, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan served as acting Defense secretary for about half of 2019. Trump intended to nominate Shanahan to fill the job, but he withdrew from consideration after allegations surfaced about domestic issues. Esper then briefly filled the job in an acting capacity, followed by then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer before Esper was confirmed.