Trump fires Defense Secretary Mark Esper

President Trump touted the military brass he surrounded himself with in his first term, calling them “my generals,” but distanced himself from Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a veteran whose yes-man mentality the president derided, calling him “Yesper.”

Now Esper, Trump’s second Pentagon chief, is among the first in an expected purge of security officials after the president’s loss in the 2020 election to former Vice President Joe Biden.

Trump announced Esper’s firing in a tweet Monday, announcing that he would be replaced by Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, “effective immediately.”

“Chris will do a GREAT job!” Trump tweeted. “Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”

When Trump, a former reality-TV show host with no government or national security experience, first entered the White House, he named two retired four-star Marine Corps generals to top posts: Gens. Jim Mattis as his first Defense secretary and John Kelly as his first secretary of Homeland Security. Trump also made retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who’d been heavily involved in his upstart 2016 campaign, his national security advisor.

“I see my generals, generals who are going to keep us so safe,” Trump said in January 2017, just hours after he’d been sworn in, describing them as straight out of “central casting.”

Trump fired Flynn just weeks into the job for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about contact with Russian officials. He ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, a federal crime, and became the only White House official charged in the Russia investigation, though Trump has continued to defend him.

Yet Trump grew to distrust his top national security officials amid fallouts over his criticism of allies, warmth toward adversaries, disparaging of veterans and surprise announcements of troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Syria. Kelly and Mattis opposed the drawdowns, and Trump’s first Defense secretary in particular became an outspoken critic of the president.

As for Esper, a West Point graduate who once served in the 101st Airborne Division, his tenure at the Pentagon has been tenuous from the outset.

Esper drew Trump’s ire after implicitly criticizing the president’s threat to use active-duty troops this spring to respond to unrest and protests over injustice and police brutality. Esper’s comments came after he walked with the president across a square in front of the White House to a historic church for photographs. Authorities had used tear gas to disperse protestors for the photo op.

Using active-duty troops for domestic law enforcement, Esper said at a June press conference at the Pentagon, should be “a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”

In August, a little more than a year after Esper was confirmed by the Senate, ending the longest period the Pentagon had gone without a confirmed leader, Trump was asked at a press conference at his New Jersey golf club if he’d weighed firing Esper.

“Mark Yesper? Did you call him Yesper? OK, some people call him Yesper,” Trump said, to laughter. “No, I get along with him fine, he’s fine.” But he added, “I consider firing everybody. At some point, that’s what happens.”

Trump and Esper’s relationship “certainly seemed to be a tense one,” said David Lapan, a former Pentagon and Homeland Security official. “And, frankly, the president’s made it pretty clear he’s fine with changing people out at will.”

Lapan noted how Esper kept a much lower profile than many Trump political appointees, trying to keep the military out of politics but also himself out of the press “as a way to avoid the ire of the president.” The tightrope act was “on the one hand, understandable because of what we’ve seen,” Lapan said, “but on the other hand, not helpful that a senior leader of the military is effectively silencing himself.”

The damage Trump has done to public perception of the military as an “apolitical institution” will long outlast Mattis or Esper, Lapan said. “It will fall upon the next secretary of Defense to start to repair that damage.”