Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper must have felt like a condemned man without an execution date. Since his very public disagreement with Donald Trump last summer when he opposed using the Insurrection Act to deal with violence in big cities, he must have known the writing was on the wall. It also didn’t help his longevity when he claimed he was duped into participating in Trump’s photo-op at a church across the street from Lafayette Square after it had been forcibly cleared of protesters.
But Trump was in the middle of a re-election campaign and firing his secretary of defense was bad optics. The president chose to bide his time.
Like any condemned man, Esper got his affairs in order. He soldiered on with his schedule. He wrote a farewell letter to civilian employees at the Pentagon, thanking them for their service.
Together, we have made solid progress implementing the National Defense Strategy by modernizing the force, improving its readiness, strengthening ties with allies and partners, and reforming the Department to make it more efficient. We have also made major strides in taking care of our military personnel, spouses, and their families, and launched important initiatives to improve diversity, inclusion, and equity in the armed services. At the same time, we stood up the Space Force and Space Command, recapitalized the nuclear triad, expanded the authorities and resources of Cyber Command, and proposed a bold vision for a future Navy. As such, I am confident the Defense Department’s progress on all of these initiatives has improved the security of the United States and advanced our interests abroad.
I am particularly proud of these accomplishments in light of the challenges we faced along the way: a global pandemic; confrontations with Iran and its proxies throughout the Middle East; continued deployment of troops into conflict zones; domestic civil unrest; malign behavior globally by Russia and China; and a charged political atmosphere here at home. Through thick and thin, however, we have always put People and Country first.
And he kept his mouth shut. Trump might have appreciated that with half his former cabinet members sniping at him from offstage. But the public spat with the president couldn’t go unpunished. Esper had to go, not only because he questioned his boss’s wisdom, but because he never gave full-throated support to him.
His replacement, director of the National Counterterrorism Center Chris Miller, won’t have any trouble obeying orders. A career special forces operator and Naval War College graduate, Miller makes up for a thin resume with rock-solid loyalty to Trump.
Esper is not going out with a whimper. He gave an interview to Military Times in anticipation of his firing in which he claims he was not Trump’s lapdog, as the president himself seemed to suggest when he referred to his defense secretary as “Yesper.”
“I guess my top line is, as I look back, I see it ― you know, despite a series of crises and conflicts ― and yes, occasional tension with the White House ― I think we’ve been really successful in transforming the department, implementing my top priority as the NDS, if you will, and then protecting the institution, which is really important to me,” he said. “And then … fourth, I should say, preserving my integrity in the process.”
Dubbed “Yesper” by his critics, including the president, he takes umbrage with the idea that he has been anyone’s “yes man.”
“My frustration is I sit here and say, ‘Hm, 18 Cabinet members. Who’s pushed back more than anybody?’ Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back,” Esper told Military Times. “Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’”
Donald Trump’s dilemma from day one of his presidency was that he wanted to “drain the swamp” and shake things up — but he needed establishment government-types to help him do it. Esper, like other establishment national security figures in the administration, never could get used to the idea that Trump was in charge. The president’s abrasive personality no doubt played a role in the pushback. But Esper should have realized that when Trumpworld met the establishment, there were only two possible outcomes: submission or termination.