Following Joe Biden’s victory in last week’s election, outgoing US President Donald Trump has fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper by tweet and caused a raft of resignations amongst the Pentagon’s civilian leadership.
Trump announced on Tuesday local time that Esper was ‘terminated’ and has been replaced by acting secretary Chris Miller, previously director of the National Counterterrorism Centre.
Miller reportedly arrived at the Pentagon building to take over before the US military had even confirmed Esper’s removal.
Media sources said that Esper had expected his dismissal following his opposition to using active duty troops to suppress civilian protests in Washington DC earlier this year. Esper himself told the Military Times in an exclusive interview that he was concerned the move would have taken the country in a ‘really dark direction’.
Esper’s ‘termination’, however, has been followed by several other high-profile exits.
The Pentagon has confirmed that James Anderson, the acting undersecretary for defence policy, resigned within a day of Esper’s sacking. He has been replaced by Anthony Tata, a former brigadier general who retired after an inquiry found he had two affairs whilst serving, which is a breach of US military law.
Vice Admiral (ret’d) Joseph Kernan, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, has also left (it is unclear whether he resigned or was also ‘terminated’), as has Esper’s chief of staff John Stewart.
US media, including Politico, Foreign Policy, CNN and Defense News, are reporting a sense of unease amongst US military leadership as new appointees take over amidst the President’s refusal to acknowledge defeat in the election. There are also open questions around whether Esper’s replacement follows US Defense Department statutes relating to the line of succession amongst Senate-confirmed positions.
CNN’s Jake Tapper has cited sources saying that Esper’s team were fired for resisting what they saw as a ‘premature’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, and other ‘pending security issues.’
Anderson’s farewell message reportedly encouraged his staff to remain ‘apolitical’ and to ‘remember your oath of office’. He also said that long-term success depends on ‘adhering to the US Constitution’.
Esper originally took over from James Mattis, a widely respected Marine Corps general who took issue with the possibility of active duty US troops using force against American citizens.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago,” he wrote for The Atlantic, “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.”
For his part, Esper told the Military Times that he had worried about who his replacement would be.
“I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that — why? Who’s going to come in behind me?” he asked. “It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”