UNITED STATES. Washington: With only 72 days left in his presidency, Donald Trump fired his Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper. Holding the job for less than two years, Esper was on Trump’s chopping block.
Esper earned the nickname “Yesper”
Early in his tenure, Esper had gained a reputation as a “yes man,” largely in lockstep with Trump’s policy decisions. He approved the Pentagon’s decision to shift billions to fund the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump and Esper agreed on the assassination of a top Iranian general. Esper also knew about Trump’s denial of foreign aid to Ukraine, a quagmire that led to the President’s impeachment.
Rifts began in wake of nationwide protests
The two men clashed this year when Trump brushed up against Esper’s strong opposition to using troops to quell domestic protests when thousands took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minnesota Police Department.
The relationship continued to sour when Esper was led, he claims unknowingly, as part of a presidential entourage, to a church in D.C. in what was later criticized as a presidential photo-op. Tear gas was used to break up protesters who had gathered in Lafayette Square, to clear the way for the President and his cadre of officials.
When The Pentagon began dealing with diversity and inclusion directly, Esper supported the removal of all Confederate flags (and all other but the official US flag) from military posts, in addition to changing the names of 10 named after Confederate officers. Trump was opposed to such prohibitions and changes.
Disagreement over foreign troop levels
Esper replaced General Mattis who had resigned in December of 2018. Mattis left his position after strong disapproval of Trump’s threat to remove troops from Syria. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Trump often disagreed on foreign policy, namely with troop removal in key areas Mattis felt necessary to maintain.
Trump has yet to acknowledge that he has lost re-election, and this move to fire a Secretary of Defense during a lame duck session is unprecedented.
The months when the US is transitioning from one administration to another makes the US especially vulnerable, and this move will no doubt create additional instability.
Troop withdrawal in Afghanistan had been another sticking point between the President and Esper. Trump was eager to get significant troop withdrawal prior to the 3 November election. Esper was working on a timeline in coordination with the Afghan forces, hoping for 8,000 to be removed by May 2021, while the President was hoping for a significant drawdown by Christmas.
With the recent attacks in Afghanistan and rocky peace talks between the US, the Taliban, and Afghan forces, changing the Defense Secretary is a risky move.
Counterterrorism Director named as Esper’s replacement
Christopher Miller, National Counterterrorism Center Director, has been named as Esper’s replacement. “Miller served in the military for slightly more than 30 years, from 1983 to 2014. He initially enlisted as an infantryman in the Army Reserve and also served in the District of Columbia National Guard as a military policeman, according to his biography. He eventually commissioned as an infantry officer in 1987 and transferred to Special Forces in 1993. As part of 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Miller participated in the initial invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003” (Stars and Stripes).
Esper said in an interview with Military Times, “At the end of the day, you’ve got to pick your fights. Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”
Whether Miller will indeed become Trump’s “yes man” is uncertain, but with the Biden/Harris administration nipping at his heels, Miller only has 10 weeks to claim his place in history, a bookend to Trump’s one term presidency.