Trump Fires Defense Secretary in Surprise Move After Election Loss

President Donald Trump on Monday fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the fourth person to hold that position during four rocky years that saw deteriorating relations between senior members of the military and a commander in chief who became increasingly skeptical of them.

Trump announced Esper “has been terminated” in a tweet – a common vehicle for consequential announcements during his presidency – and stated that current Senate-approved Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist would not inherit the position as statute dictates but rather that Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will serve as acting secretary “effective immediately.” Miller, a former Army special forces officer, oversees an agency within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, outside the Defense Department.

Trump added his thanks for Esper’s service.

It was not immediately clear why Trump chose to fire the Pentagon chief during the lame duck session and weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration in late January. The Pentagon has expressly sought to avoid attention for the defense secretary since he publicly criticized Trump’s consideration of using active duty military forces to quell widespread protests this summer. Esper has not held a press conference since July and has imposed tight restrictions on the few reporters who have traveled with him in recent months.

A source familiar with the inner workings of the Pentagon says Trump’s ire centers on Esper having distanced himself from a highly controversial photo op the president orchestrated outside a church next to the White House, moments after police forcefully cleared out protesters from the site. Esper, who was a part of the entourage that escorted Trump along with Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later said he did not know at the time where he was going.

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said moments after the news broke that Esper’s firing “killed the atmosphere” among an already beleaguered Pentagon staff.

Rumors of Esper’s impending dismissal have circulated in recent days, along with other speculation about why Trump would pursue such a provocative move. Esper had reportedly been working with members of the Senate and House armed services committees on drafting a new budget for the Defense Department, which was said to include language that would rename U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals – a move Trump has repeatedly insisted he would not allow. The Pentagon reportedly angered Trump by effectively banning Confederate flags on military installations in a new policy early this summer that restricts all seemingly political paraphernalia – including gay pride flags – that are not explicitly included on a new pre-approved list.

A series of current and former officials speaking privately with U.S. News suspect there may not be a clear reason for Esper’s firing, beyond Trumps frustration with a military that turned out not to be as receptive to his orders as he previously expressed.

“There’s probably not much logic behind it, just spite and venting anger,” says David Priess, a former CIA officer who regularly briefed top White House officials during his tenure under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. He wrote “The President’s Book of Secrets,” which documents the history of the commander in chief’s daily intelligence briefings. “It may very well be that Esper was asked to do something and he refused, as simple as not saying something publicly that the president wanted him to say, and so Trump is just looking to punish people who aren’t fully in line.”

Others have expressed surprise at the extent to which Esper split from the president since the early summer after not doing so for the first year of his tenure.

“Trump is undoubtedly angry that Esper distanced himself from the photo op debacle in Lafayette Square in early June and that Esper effectively banned the display of Confederate flags on military bases after Trump stated they should be allowed,” says Nora Bensahel, a professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of a new book about how militaries adapt during wartime.

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Source: US News