WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was sacked by President Trump on Monday, the latest casualty in the president’s revolving door of senior national security officials who fell on the wrong side of their boss.
Mr. Trump announced the decision on Twitter, saying in an abrupt message that Mr. Esper had been “fired”.
Mr Trump wrote on Twitter that he was appointing Christopher C. Miller, described by the president as the “highly respected” director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting secretary of defense. He will be the fourth man to lead the Pentagon under Mr. Trump, who has noted that Mr. Miller has already been approved by the Senate.
Mr Miller is a former Army Green Beret who previously served as the senior counterterrorism policy official at Trump’s White House National Security Council..
Mr Esper’s downfall had been expected for months, after taking the rare step in June of publicly disagreeing with Mr Trump and saying that active-duty military troops should not be sent to control the wave of protests in American cities. The president, who had threatened to use the insurgency law to do just that, was furious, officials said.
Mr Esper’s spokesperson at the time attempted to undo the damage, telling the New York Times that Mr Trump also did not want to use the Uprising Act, otherwise he would have invoked it already. “We don’t see the disconnect,” said Jonathan Hoffman, a spokesperson for Mr. Esper.
White House officials disagreed.
Mr Esper, 56, a former Secretary of the Army and former Raytheon executive, became Secretary of Defense last July after Mr Trump withdrew the appointment of Patrick M. Shanahan, the acting Defense Secretary , in the midst of an FBI investigation into Mr. Shanahan’s former wife’s allegations that he punched her in the stomach. Mr. Shanahan has denied the charges.
Mr Shanahan had replaced Jim Mattis, who stepped down as Defense Secretary in 2018, citing his own differences with the president.
Mr Esper had taken the trouble to trim the Trump line during his tenure. But concern over the invocation of the Insurgency Act to send active-duty troops to fight protesters across the country runs deep in the Pentagon. Under strong public criticism, Mr Esper finally broke with the president.
Mr. Trump has referred to Mr. Esper like “Mr. Yesper. But the insult is ironic in itself, as it is the Defense Secretary’s public break with the president at a press conference in June in which he spoke out against the use of US troops on duty. active in quelling the civil unrest that initially infuriated Mr. Trump. The comments came after he accompanied Mr. Trump on his walk through Lafayette Square outside the White House, where protesters had just received tear gas, leading to convictions of former military and civilian officials of the Ministry of Defense.
In midsummer, Mr. Esper was walking a fine line to push back other contentious positions involving the military Mr. Trump had taken.
The Pentagon, without once mentioning the word “confederate,” announced in July that it would essentially ban displays of the Confederate flag on military installations across the world.
In a carefully crafted memo which Defense Department officials said was written to avoid igniting another defense of Mr. Trump’s flag, Mr. Esper issued guidelines listing the types of flags that can be displayed on military installations – in barracks, on cars and on signs.
The guidelines did not specifically say that Confederate flags were prohibited, but they did not fit into any of the approved categories – and such flags are prohibited.
After the fateful events of June, Mr Esper sought to slip under the radar, avoiding the media and keeping a low profile to avoid being drawn into electoral politics.
Mr. Esper has traveled extensively in the early summer, including overseas trips to North Africa, the Middle East and India.
But the secretary deliberately limited his public comments down the road.
And when he spoke in public, abroad or in Washington, it was often in prerecorded remarks, on safe topics (denigrating China and Russia on the trip to Africa) or in friendly places (a session of Q&A on military readiness at the Heritage Foundation, where Mr. Esper served as Chief of Staff earlier in his career).
Yet on the biggest problem of 2020 – the coronavirus pandemic – history can show that Mr Esper has by far surpassed his boss, who has largely refused to wear a mask and contracted the coronavirus during a epidemic in the White House. Mr. Esper, on the other hand, has strictly adhered to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding wearing a mask when unable to maintain recommended social distancing.
In a virtual Pentagon town hall-style meeting, Mr. Esper responded to a sailor from the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford, who complained that the social distancing required on the ship was hurting morale.
“It’s tedious – I understand that,” Mr. Esper said. “But I think it shows, in terms of how the Navy is doing in terms of infection rate, that they are doing a really good job.