U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday, sending shockwaves through Washington.
“Mark Esper has been terminated,” Trump tweeted. “I would like to thank him for his service.”
The announcement came only days after a Pentagon spokesman said Esper “has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation.” Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, reportedly called Esper to give him a heads-up that the president’s tweet was going to be sent out.
In a letter to Trump on Monday, Esper said he accepts the president’s decision to replace him as he serves “the country in deference to the Constitution,” while stressing his efforts to keep the Pentagon “out of politics.”
Esper, 56, began to lead the U.S. Department of Defense in mid-2019 after serving as secretary of the Army. During his tenure at the Pentagon, Esper played a major role in implementing the Trump administration’s national security policies and mobilizing military resources to help the country address the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he was at odds with the White House on several occasions over domestic issues.
This summer, when demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice swept across the country and Trump threatened to deploy active-duty troops to respond to violence arising from the events, Esper held a press conference in Pentagon making clear his opposition to the idea.
“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper said in June. “We are not in one of those situations now.”
Recently, Esper reportedly helped lawmakers on Capitol Hill craft legislation to pull the names of Confederate leaders from military bases, after the national reckoning over police brutality, racism, and slavery, despite public opposition from Trump.
Nancy Pelosi, top Congressional Democrat, said in a statement that “it is concerning that reports show that this firing was an act of retribution,” arguing that the move could put the country’s national security at risk. A flurry of other Democrats, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, also lashed out at the firing of Esper and its timing.
Democrat and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has declared victory for the 2020 presidential election, while sitting President Trump hasn’t conceded and is pushing for legal challenges.
“In the national security community, it is well known that periods of presidential transition leave our country exposed to unique threats,” Smith said in a statement. “It is imperative that the Pentagon remain under stable, experienced leadership.”
Trump tweeted on Monday that Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will be the Pentagon’s acting chief “effective immediately.”
Miller, 55, was sworn in as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, aligned under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in August this year. Most recently, he served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.
Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, tweeted he is looking forward to “working with him to ensure that these priorities remain paramount and to working with President Trump to maintain stability at the Pentagon, particularly as we work to enact the 60th annual NDAA.
“Inhofe was referring to the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill authorizing appropriations for fiscal year 2021 and setting forth policies for the department’s programs and activities.
James Mattis, the Trump administration’s first defense secretary, resigned in late 2018 over policy disagreements with the president. In May 2019, Trump announced intention to tap Patrick Shanahan, then acting defense secretary, to formally lead the department but the decision was reversed a month later when Shanahan said he was withdrawing.
Days later, the president said he would name Esper for the post in a permanent capacity. The nomination quickly passed the Senate with a bipartisan support. Before joining the Trump administration, Esper was the vice president for government relations at Raytheon, a major U.S. defense contractor.