President Trump announced the ouster of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Monday, marking the exit of Trump’s fourth Pentagon chief and naming a senior intelligence official to take his place.
“Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service,” the president said on Twitter.
Trump said that Christopher Miller, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, would immediately become acting defense secretary. “Chris will do a GREAT job!” Trump said.
Esper’s firing, expected since at least June but announced suddenly as Trump continues to contest the results of the presidential election, plunges the Pentagon into another period of leadership upheaval as military officials seek to reorient the military toward threats emanating from Asia and navigate political tensions at home.
Esper, an Army veteran and former weapons lobbyist who also worked on Capitol Hill, has been mostly aligned with his commander in chief on major foreign policy issues, but clashed with Trump over the president’s steps to draw the military into partisan politics.
Chief among those was a dust-up in June, when Trump demanded that thousands of troops be dispatched on the streets of Washington amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act to active-duty service members, but Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pushed against it, concerned that it would look like martial law.
Esper presided over the military’s response to the covid-19 pandemic and, following last summer’s protests, sought to take steps to address its legacy of racial and gender discrimination. In July, the defense secretary issued a de facto ban on the display of the Confederate battle flag on military bases and stated openness to renaming Army posts that recognize Confederate officers who fought to preserve slavery. Trump angrily tweeted that he would not allow bases to be renamed did not overturn the ban.
Esper took over amid upheaval in 2019, after then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan abruptly resigned in the midst of preparations for his confirmation hearing. Shanahan served in an acting capacity for six months after his predecessor, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, resigned over disputes with Trump about military alliances and other matters. Richard V. Spencer, the then-Navy secretary, served as acting defense secretary for a week while Esper underwent Senate confirmation.
Esper, who graduated from West Point in the same class as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, joined the Trump administration as Army secretary in 2017, Trump’s third nominee for that position after other candidates dropped out.
He has struggled at times to achieve his stated goal of protecting the military from politicization. While he broke with Trump in June over the potential use of active duty troops to help restore order, he referred to U.S. cities as a “battlespace” during the same period, a remark for which he apologized. He also drew criticism for appearing alongside Trump for a photo outside the White House shortly after uniformed personnel forcibly cleared protesters from the area.
Esper has mostly avoided the news media since, curtailing interviews in favor of events at think tanks.
Miller previously served as a senior Pentagon official for special operations matters and also worked on the National Security Council. As an Army officer, he took part in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He became director of the National Counterterrorism Center in August.
Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe, Washington Post