Defense Secretary Mark Esper, like many alumni of the Trump administration, leaves the Pentagon disgraced. But the former lobbyist may have gotten what he wanted: a firing that provides the yes-man nicknamed “Yesper” a path back to respectability.
Esper, President Donald Trump’s fourth Pentagon chief and second Senate-confirmed defense secretary, was fired on Monday, capping a year-plus tenure notable both for its lack of achievement and its willingness to appease the White House at the expense of the military.
The final straw, which took months to break the camel’s back, was Esper’s belated public rejection in June of the active-duty military to put down nationwide protests against institutional police racism. Just days earlier, he had supported Trump by saying the military stood ready to “dominate the battlespace,” a comment that drew rebukes from national-security luminaries, including one of his predecessors, for its blithe portrayal of American cities as legitimate battlefields for the military.
Trump, who appears to have lost re-election, tweeted on Thursday that Esper will be replaced, on a temporary basis, by National Counterterrorism Center Director Chris Miller, a former Pentagon and National Security Council official under Trump. It was unclear why David Norquist, the deputy secretary of defense, was not acting secretary, as the law unambiguously mandates. Pentagon officials deferred comment to the White House—and took hours to clarify that Norquist remains deputy secretary. All of it created uncertainty over whether any order Miller gives the military will be lawful.
Legislators, mostly Democrats, reacted with alarm to the firing, one they feared might inaugurate a wave of expected cashierings, particularly at the FBI and CIA, as Trump seeks to remain in office. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-CA), called it “not just childish, [but] also reckless.” The senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the firing amounted to Trump “putting his ego over the needs and security of our nation.” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee warned Trump not to “invite further volatility by removing any Senate-confirmed intelligence or national security officials during his time left in office.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) explicitly warned that Miller was in place to do what Esper would not: permit Trump to order the military to attack American citizens.
“Donald Trump fired someone who wouldn’t order U.S. troops to attack peaceful protesters and is replacing him with someone he may think will carry out those orders,” Wyden said in a statement. “I opposed Chris Miller’s nomination earlier this year, because he refused to promise that intelligence agencies wouldn’t target Americans based on their political views. He should remember that anyone who carries out an illegal order from Donald Trump will be held fully accountable under the law.”
On the right, Smith’s counterpart Rep. Marc Thornberry (R-TX) did not criticize Trump but praised Esper as deserving “the gratitude of every American.” Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said the firing was “emotional and misguided.”
A Defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity cited the Vacancies Act to explain why Miller’s appointment is lawful. Yet the Act states that when an official is unable to perform their duties, “the first assistant to the office of such officer shall perform the functions and duties of the office temporarily in an acting capacity,” which in this case would be Norquist, not Miller.
Esper was an accidental defense secretary. He was one of three temporary secretaries after Jim Mattis resigned in December 2018 over the now-scotched withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. A lobbyist for Raytheon before spending the beginning of the Trump administration as Army secretary, Esper wasn’t Trump’s first choice for the permanent job. That was ex-Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew from consideration after a domestic-violence incident emerged.
Esper was quickly sidelined. Few Trump administration national security initiatives featured him as a driving force behind them. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped into the void as the primary force in the administration’s foreign policy. It represented the fulfillment of a longtime goal of the national-security establishment: restoring the State Department to primacy, though it occurred by drift and without any reduction in the three-quarter-trillion-dollar Pentagon budget.
Esper established his complicity early on by allowing the Trump administration to raid that budget for initiatives it could not get Congress to fund. In September 2019, he permitted the “reprogramming” of $3.6 billion, a drop in the Pentagon bucket, to build Trump’s southern border wall. The money came from 127 approved military construction projects. Congressional outcry was no obstacle. Esper did it again in April, this time for far less money. Shortly before the election, the Pentagon announced that it would keep troops on the border, against no threat, through 2021.
Esper’s failures reached a different level when the novel coronavirus swept through the country. Esper’s priority was to keep the military in a state of readiness, in line with the White House’s contemporary line to downplay the effect of the virus, rather than implementing a controlled or rolling shutdown to insulate the military from the pandemic. Esper preferred to make shutdowns a commander’s prerogative, which resulted in draconian conditions in some quarantines early in the outbreak, before it resulted in a debacle. As coronavirus ravaged the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, its captain, Brett Crozier, recommended shutting down almost all carrier operations to care for the crew and disinfect the ship.
Esper set aside his initial emphasis on commanders’ decision-making to second-guess Crozier’s urgent plea. “I don’t think we’re at that point,” he told CBS. The Navy defenestrated Crozier instead, smearing the captain as a leaker. It backfired. The Roosevelt’s crew of the ship made Crozier a hero at the expense of his persecutor, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who resigned. Esper, however, dodged the lesson of the incident, which was that Navy ships, because of their close-quarters living, are highly vulnerable to the virus. He instead went along with a maritime interdiction Trump desired. “Transnational criminal organizations continue to threaten our security,” Esper offered, as if smuggled cocaine was a greater threat than a pandemic. Later, the Pentagon actually blamed Crozier for the virus aboard the TR.
But his greatest failure of leadership was yet to come.
On June 1, on a conference call with governors, Trump urged a violent crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters. Joining the call was Esper, who advised them to “mass and dominate the battlespace” to bring back a sense of “normal.” While Esper and the Pentagon would later downplay his choice of words as an innocent use of military jargon, it horrified military observers with the implication that American citizens were to be treated as enemies. “Not what America needs to hear… ever,” tweeted Tony Thomas, the former chief of U.S. Special Operations Command and the Joint Special Operations Command. Mattis broke his deafening silence on Trump to write: “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate.’”
By the afternoon, with Esper at the White House, Trump announced his willingness to invoke the 19th century Insurrection Act to command the U.S. military to, as Esper put it, “dominate the battlespace” while police outside proceeded to do just that steps from the White House gates. In a horrifying scene, Park Police, backed by National Guardsmen, used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a peaceful protest, all so Trump could wave a Bible for the cameras in front of St. John’s Church.
As Trump walked to the church through the now-cleared park, Esper trailed behind him. He later told reporters he had no idea what the president had in store.
After a frightening night in D.C., where a National Guard medevac helicopter flew low to “rotor-wash” protesters with noise and dust – another wartime tactic—the Pentagon seemed to know it had neared a Rubicon and attempted pulling back. Officials began saying that they opposed involving the active-duty forces Trump had threatened, even as an infantry battalion arrived outside the city limits on heightened alert. A senior Obama-era Pentagon official quit the Defense Policy Board and charged Esper, a West Pointer, with forsaking his oath to the Constitution in favor of loyalty to Trump.
The following morning, Esper went before the cameras to say he opposed invoking the Insurrection Act. He did not apologize for using the term “battlespace,” but said “in retrospect” he ought to have used different wording. More than a week after Chauvin slayed Floyd, Esper denounced the killing and endorsed confronting racism. Jarringly, he urged the military to remain “apolitical.” Reporters pressed him to reconcile that invocation with his own behavior. Esper offered that while he attempted to comport himself apolitically, “sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not.”
That maxim proved true just hours later. Soon after Esper met with Trump at the White House that day, the AP reported, citing Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, that he had reversed course on a reported decision to order the active-duty contingent of 1,600 troops back home. (The next day, the Pentagon re-reversed Esper’s reversal, and sent some of those troops, from the 82nd Airborne, back to Fort Bragg. The Pentagon also reportedly instructed National Guardsmen in D.C. not to use firearms or ammunition, something it did not clear with the White House.) It was Esper’s final act to appease the president, and it wasn’t enough, in the end, to save his job.
Esper was not long for the Pentagon once Biden apparently won the election. As Trump persists in lying about voter fraud, it’s not the worst thing for Esper’s post-Trump career to be fired, even if it comes belatedly.
But not everyone will forget how “Yesper” acted when it mattered. Two legislators with an apparently long memory are Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a former senior Pentagon official, and Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ). In the lead-up to the election, Slotkin communicated with Esper to affirm that he will object to any attempt by Trump to discredit a loss, whether or not the president attempts to call out the military, and especially during the transition.
Esper gave only what Slotkin called vague, dissatisfying answers. “It’s not enough to duck your head and try to keep your job,” Sherrill told reporters last month. In the end, Yesper didn’t even get to keep it.