U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Twitter on Monday that Mark Esper, his defence secretary, “has been terminated.”
Trump, who thanked Esper for his service, said Christopher Miller, who has been head of the National Counterterrorism Center, would serve as his replacement.
The move adds more uncertainty to the transition period after the Nov. 3 vote. Trump has refused to concede last week’s election to president-elect Joe Biden, who is set to be inaugurated on Jan. 20.
Esper, 56, was confirmed in the role in July 2019. Previously the secretary of the U.S. army, he had succeeded interim leader Patrick Shanahan as the Pentagon’s top official.
Presidents who win re-election often replace cabinet members, including the secretary of defence, but losing presidents have kept their Pentagon chiefs in place until the inauguration to preserve stability in the name of national security.
WATCH l Transition figures to be unusual by modern standards:
Since the creation of the Defence Department and the position of defence secretary in 1947, the only three presidents to lose election for a second term — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — all kept their secretary of defence in place until inauguration day.
Esper seemed prepared for departure
Esper’s departure has appeared inevitable ever since he publicly broke with Trump in June over the president’s push to deploy military troops in the streets of the nation’s capital in response to civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd.
Esper publicly opposed Trump’s threats to invoke the two-centuries-old Insurrection Act, which would allow the president to use active-duty troops in a law enforcement role.
And Trump was furious when Esper told reporters the Insurrection Act should be invoked “only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” and “we are not in one of those situations now.”
The June civil unrest initially drew Esper into controversy when he joined a Trump entourage that strolled from the White House to nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo-op with Trump holding a Bible. Critics condemned Esper, saying he had allowed himself to be used as a political prop.
Esper said he didn’t know he was heading into a photo-op but thought he was going to view damage at the church and see National Guard troops in the area.
He was accompanied by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who later expressed public regret at having been present in uniform.
The defence secretary also encouraged a review of the naming of military installations after Confederate leaders, another action Trump expressed his opposition to.
Trump hinted at Esper’s shaky status in August, making a snide response to a reporter’s question about whether he still had confidence in Esper’s leadership.
“Mark ‘Yesper’? Did you call him ‘Yesper?”‘ Trump said, in what appeared to be an allusion to suggestions that Esper was a Yes man for the president. Asked if he was considering firing Esper, Trump said, “At some point, that’s what happens.”
Recently, Esper was widely expected to quit or be ousted if Trump won re-election. That impression was bolstered by the fact Military Times published an interview with Esper minutes after the firing on Monday, in which the ousted defence secretary talked about his tenure and disputed the notion he didn’t push back on Trump when warranted.
Biden reportedly considering Michele Flournoy for post
Before his current role, Miller was a deputy assistant defence secretary and top adviser to Trump on counterterrorism issues.
He has a long background with the military, having served as an enlisted infantryman in the Army Reserves and after that as a special forces officer. He also served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After his retirement from the military, Miller worked as a defence contractor.
Biden has not said who he would appoint as defence chief, but he is widely rumoured to be considering naming the first woman to the post.
Among the candidates is Michele Flournoy, who has served multiple times in the Pentagon, starting in the 1990s and most recently as the undersecretary of defence for policy from 2009 to 2012. She is well known on Capitol Hill as a moderate Democrat and is regarded among U.S. allies and partners as a steady hand who favours strong U.S. military co-operation abroad.
Trump’s first defence secretary, James Mattis, lasted until December 2018 before his departure, which was hastened by disagreements over U.S. policy in Syria. Trump’s abrupt decision to pull American troops out of Syria was later rescinded.
Aside from the church controversy, during Trump’s tenure, the Pentagon has also been at the centre of debates over the use of American troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the U.S. border with Mexico.