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Trump victory could push defense secretary through the open door

WASHINGTON – Throughout the long halls of the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper is widely regarded as a walking dead man.

There is a broad consensus that if President Trump defies the polls and wins his re-election, the President has demeaned his Defense Secretary so much, calling him “Yesper” and ridiculing him both in public and in private, that a new Secretary of Defense would soon be seated in the prestigious Pentagon’s third-floor outer ring.

When asked if he had considered firing Mr. Esper, who took over the job in July 2019, Mr. Trump told reporters at a White House press conference in August: “I plan to fire everyone. At some point, that’s what happens.

Current polls favor former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., but the Trump administration’s sunset is hardly a given. If Mr. Trump is re-elected and fires Mr. Esper, the president will consider his third appointment as Secretary of Defense.

Certainly, senior officials in the final months of any administration are still struggling to position themselves to move forward if their bosses win or move on to corporate or think tank life if they lose.

But in Mr Esper’s case, an impending departure seems more assured, even if measured by an administration where officials have come and gone at a steady pace.

Helpers spoke of possible replacements such as Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, retired General Jack Keane and current Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy. While Mr. Cotton shares Mr. Trump’s point of view on law and order, Mr. McCarthy, a former Army Ranger, has already clashed with Mr. Trump on the issue of military bases bearing the name of Confederate generals.

Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett is also mentioned as a possible successor. And if Senator Martha McSally of Arizona or Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, both Republicans and military veterans, lose their hotly contested campaigns, one of them could land the Pentagon’s top post.

And there are still rumors that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a West Point graduate and former tank commander who spices up his conversations with military terms like “mission set” and calls US diplomats “warriors,” could slide to take the helm of the Pentagon.

They all know Mr. Trump’s defense secretaries had a short half-life.

Mr. Trump reference to M. Esper like “Mr. Yesper ”is ironic in itself, as it was the Defense Secretary’s public break with the President at a June 3 press conference in which he spoke out against the use of US troops on duty. active in quelling the civil unrest that initially infuriated Mr. Trump. Mr Esper’s surprise break with the president came after accompanying Mr Trump on his famous stroll through Lafayette Square outside the White House, where protesters had just received tear gas, prompting condemnation from former military officials and civilians from the Ministry of Defense.

Deployment of active-duty troops in a national law enforcement role, Esper said at the Pentagon press conference, “should be used only as a last resort and only in the most urgent situations. and the most serious.

Seeking to right the ship by publicly distancing himself from the president’s expressed desire to invoke the insurgency law to deploy troops in American cities, Mr. Esper has practically signed his own marching papers. Senior administration officials then avoided Mr Trump from firing Mr Esper, but White House and Defense Department officials say Mr Esper’s stay of execution is only valid. until polling day.

The Defense Secretary is not the only senior official in the Trump administration to be criticized by their boss. In recent weeks, the president has said that Attorney General William P. Barr would be responsible for a “very sad and sad situation” if he did not indict Democrats like Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama. Mr. Trump lambasted Christopher A. Wray, the director of the FBI, saying, “He was disappointing.” And the president even criticized Mr. Pompeo for not posting Hillary Clinton’s emails – although the State Department made many of those messages public in a redacted form.

But, among them, Mr Esper already seems to be looking for a soft landing. An article posted earlier this month on the wobbly news site Defense One reads like an article on a dating app, listing Mr. Esper’s outstanding qualities and accomplishments as he battled “valiantly” against a sprawling and entrenched bureaucracy and trying to drag it into the world.

The Defense Secretary “did much of what he set out to do behind the scenes and without much fanfare,” said the article, written by a member of a conservative Washington think tank. The essay went on to praise Mr. Esper’s “serious efforts to better align dollars with strategy” and his moves to shift responsibility to “like-minded thinkers”.

“While all of this was going on,” the article concludes, Mr. Esper “oversaw the establishment of a new military service in the Space Force and managed a global pandemic response operation by the Department of Defense, involving more than 60,000 uniformed and civilian personnel. while the US military “served in over 100 countries to deter enemies, reassure allies, and build capabilities.”

Inside the Pentagon, the item landed with the full force of a failed bomb. A Defense Department official likened it to a job application, as part of an effort to help Mr. Esper find suitable post-government employment if his boss fired him, as the president said. said to his helpers.

“Throughout his career in uniform and as a civilian leader, Secretary Esper has always been and remains committed to doing what is best for the military and the nation,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the spokesperson for Mr. Esper, in an email to the This article.

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 coronavirus during the outbreak of the White House. Mr Esper, on the other hand, has strictly adhered to the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines on wearing masks when unable to maintain recommended social distancing.

In a recent Pentagon virtual town hall-style meeting, 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.

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been nine military deaths attributable to Covid-19 out of a total population of more than 2.2 million soldiers in the active force, the National Guard and the reserves.

But since the fateful events of early June, Mr Esper has flown under the radar, avoiding the media and keeping a low profile to avoid being drawn into electoral politics. Thus, the Defense One article on his achievements, written by Mackenzie Eaglen, resident of the American Enterprise Institute, stood out. But as the article raised eyebrows inside the Pentagon, the Washington official responded with a shrug.

“It’s kind of a Beltway rite of passage for future alumni to get their various fans on the outside to write rave reviews of all the ‘good’ things they did just as the needle is about to drop. for the next series of musical chairs in DC, ”said Brian Katulis, principal investigator at the Center for American Progress. “It goes like clockwork as the sun begins to set for each administration – I could show you the coins from the last few years of the Obama and Bush administrations.

Either way, the president’s aides say a second term for Trump would almost certainly not include Mr Esper. Two Pentagon officials said it suited Mr. Esper, a West Point classmate of Mr. Pompeo who once served in the 101st Airborne Division before becoming a senior congressional aide and then a lobbyist for the contractor. Raytheon military.

Mr Esper, 56, replaced Jim Mattis, who resigned in December 2018 amid a dispute over the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. Patrick M. Shanahan, Mr. Trump’s initial choice to replace Mr. Mattis, abruptly resigned his position as Acting Secretary in June 2019 even before his Senate confirmation hearing was even scheduled, after reports surfaced. revealed the details of her divorce in 2011.

Mr. Esper has been traveling constantly since early summer and is leaving next week for a trip to India.

Mr Esper did not speak to the traveling news media on his last trips, which is highly unusual. When he has spoken publicly, it is often in prerecorded remarks, on safe topics (disparaging China and Russia on a recent trip to Africa), or in friendly places (a question-and-answer session on the military readiness at the Heritage Foundation, where Esper served as chief of staff earlier in his career).

“Together, we continue to fight against the malicious, coercive and predatory behavior of Beijing and Moscow aimed at undermining African institutions, eroding national sovereignty, creating instability and exploiting resources throughout the region” Mr. Esper said during a speech at the American Battle. Cemetery of monuments in Tunisia last month.

Friends and colleagues say Mr. Esper has dealt with a mercurial commander-in-chief and the turmoil of the Trump administration as well as might be expected.

“I would say he played a fundamentally weak card game – an erratic president, tensions and politicization of the department during the election year, and a bunch of rotating characters on his team over which the PM wielded full authority. – quite good, “James G. Stavridis, retired four-star admiral and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said in an email. “He tries hard to stay off the crest line, but it’s tough with a president who is 100% focused on re-election, regardless of the damage done to politics and international security, from there. Iraq to Afghanistan via the Korean Peninsula.

Mr. Esper “knows his days are numbered, either with his own hand or others,” said Raymond F. DuBois, a former senior official in the Department of the Army and Defense of the George W. Bush, who has known Mr. Esper for almost two years. decades. “Therefore, there is little use in being anything other than the ‘silent’ secretary.”

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