Mark T. Esper’s tenure as secretary of defense was officially “terminated” by Donald Trump on November 9, but his ouster had been expected for months—ever since he defied the president by refusing to support the use of active-duty troops in crushing public protests following George Floyd’s murder on May 25. As is well known, Trump demands total loyalty and submission from his top appointees, and is quick to punish anyone who disobeys his mandate. Hence, when Esper publicly rejected the president’s stance on the use of American troops in curbing dissent, his days in office were numbered; it was only through heavy pressure from Trump’s top aides and allies in Congress—worried about the campaign implications of turmoil at the Pentagon—that Esper was not fired on the spot. But now, with the election over, Trump felt no hesitation in ousting an unfaithful servant.
It would appear, then, that the most logical explanation for Esper’s abrupt dismissal is probably just that: Trump’s monumental ego and his intolerance of dissent within his leadership cadre. “It has long been clear that President Trump cares about loyalty above all else, often at the expense of competence,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) of Esper’s removal.
But when speaking of this president, it is always necessary to consider other, more sinister motives. Does Esper’s ouster suggest apocalyptic last-ditch moves by the president as his own departure moves closer? While there are no obvious indications of such plans, two aspects of Esper’s removal demand our attention.
First, bear in mind that Trump turned against Esper precisely because the secretary refuted the president’s claim that it was necessary to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 and allow the use of active-duty troops in suppressing domestic unrest. (The Insurrection Act empowers the president to deploy US military and federalized National Guard troops on domestic soil to overcome civil disorder and rebellion; in modern times, it has been used to suppress labor agitation, urban riots, and the Chicago protests of 1968.) On June 1, when the George Floyd demonstrations were reaching a crescendo, Trump warned that if the governors of protest-inflamed states like Illinois, Minnesota, and Oregon did not call out National Guard troops to quell the mass upheavals, he would invoke the 1807 law and order Army troops into the streets. “I will deploy the US military and quickly solve the problem for them,” he said at the time.
Later that day, after DC police and National Guard troops used pepper spray and excessive force to clear protesters from Lafayette Park, across from the White House, Trump walked across the park with Esper and others for a photo opportunity (waving a Bible he had hastily procured) in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. Esper, who was widely criticized by his peers for joining the president in what turned out to be a political stunt, later claimed that he was hoodwinked into joining Trump, believing he was only there to “talk with the troops.” Two days later, with anger over the Lafayette Park incident mounting, Esper issued a blanket rejection of Trump’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act in response to the growing protests.
That law should only be invoked “as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire situations,” Esper told reporters at the Pentagon. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
By all accounts, Trump was furious upon hearing of Esper’s statement, and was ready to fire him on the spot. When asked later that day by reporters if Trump still had confidence in Esper, all White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany could say was, “As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper. And should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future.”
In the ensuing weeks, as the election campaign gained momentum, Trump’s closest allies in the Senate persuaded him to retain Esper for the time being, lest his abrupt removal undercut the president’s claims of being tough on national security. But no one had any doubt that Trump intended to fire him at the first chance he got, and Esper himself is said to have had his resignation letter ready ever since June 3.
This brings us to the present, and raises questions about the importance of the Insurrection Act in the president’s thinking. He has clearly signaled his intent to employ every means at his disposal to undermine the election results and remain in power, presumably in the belief that the courts—and especially the Supreme Court, now packed with conservative justices—will validate his claim to victory. This, he undoubtedly knows, would trigger mass protests all across the United States. Is he already thinking ahead to this moment, and eliminating an obstacle to the use of military force in crushing such protests? It is impossible for anyone outside of Trump’s inner circle to know the answer to this, but it is certainly reasonable to assume that the notion has crossed the president’s mind more than once.
And this brings us to the second matter of concern: Trump’s choice as Esper’s replacement at the Pentagon, Christopher C. Miller. (Miller will serve as acting secretary of defense; he is ineligible to be confirmed as secretary as he served as a commissioned officer in the Armed Forces until 2014, and US law requires a seven-year hiatus between active-duty status and appointment to the top civilian post at the Pentagon.)
Until now, Miller’s highest position has been as director of the National Counterterrorism Center—an office he assumed only in August. Before that, the highest position he held—and that only briefly—was as deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and acting assistant secretary. Many in Washington are wondering why Miller—a relatively junior official—was chosen for the top Pentagon position and other highly qualified officials, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist—were passed over. Miller has some Pentagon experience, noted Senator Angus King (I-Me.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “but certainly not at the secretary level.”
What does stand out in Miller’s long and impressive résumé is his service with the US Special Forces, including several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these activities, in which Miller is said to have served with skill and bravery, involved covert operations against Al Qaeda and ISIS in the Baghdad area, presumably in concert with the CIA. Is there something else to this that we do not know? Or did Trump choose him because of his experience in irregular operations in an urban setting? We simply do not know.
In the most optimistic reading of the president’s motives in removing Esper, Trump is simply using this moment to punish a senior official he has long viewed with contempt and to replace him with a favored acolyte. This is troubling enough for many in the national security establishment who fear a leadership vacuum at the Department of Defense at a particularly sensitive moment, possibly inviting America’s adversaries to gain geopolitical advantage at Washington’s expense.
“Dismissing politically appointed national security leaders during a transition is a destabilizing move that will only embolden our adversaries and put our country at greater risk,” said Representative Smith. “President Trump’s decision to fire Esper out of spite is not just childish, it’s also reckless.”
Other lawmakers also worry that Miller’s appointment will dilute the progress Esper had made in modernizing the Pentagon arms-procurement process and shifting the military’s strategic emphasis from fighting terrorists and insurgents to preparing for all-out war with Russia and China—a shift that itself deserves careful scrutiny.
In the days ahead, however, we must be on guard for any evidence that Trump’s decision to fire Esper and replace him with a Special Operations veteran signals a covert White House plan to use the US military in support of an illegal drive to subvert democracy and install Trump as dictator.