As former Defense Secretary Mark Esper packed up his Pentagon office Monday, he released a final memo to the department. urging troops and DoD civilians to “always do the right thing.”
President Donald Trump fired Esper after months of speculation that the Pentagon’s top official was on thin ice.
“While I step aside knowing that there is much more we could accomplish together to advance America’s national security, there is much achieved in the time we had to improve the readiness, capabilities, and professionalism of the joint force, while fundamentally transforming and preparing it for the future,” he wrote.
Esper told Military Times in a Nov. 4 interview that he had no intention of resigning from his post, though he had heard the rumors that the president intended to fire him after the election.
“Yeah, look, I mean ― my soldiers don’t get to quit,” he said. “So if I’m going to quit, it better be over something really, really big. And otherwise, look, I’m going to do what I’ve always done, which is try and shape it the best I can.”
Trump replaced Esper with Chris Miller, a retired Special Forces officer who had been serving as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting defense secretary.
Miller is expected to serve in that role through Jan. 20, when President-elect Joe Biden is expected to be inaugurated.
Esper touted the department’s progress on implementing the National Defense Strategy, confronting the COVID-19 pandemic and confronting conflicts with Iran, Russia and China.
His fate at the Pentagon had been up in the air for months, following a June briefing in which he told reporters that he did not believe that rioting outside the White House required the deployment of active-duty troops, reportedly angering Trump.
He also lamented his role in the president’s walk across Lafayette Park, after U.S, Park Police had cleared it of protestors using tear gas and rubber bullets, in what was widely seen as a political photo opportunity.
Esper addressed that tension in his letter, referencing his first letter to the force in June 2019, calling on the department to uphold its values.
“I want to thank you all for living up to that standard, for remaining apolitical, and for honoring your oath to the Constitution,” Esper wrote Monday.
In the run-up to the election, Esper limited his unscripted public appearances and generally kept his head down, out of Trump’s line of sight.
Post-election, however, speculation picked up that Trump would fire Esper in retaliation.
“Stay focused on your mission, remain steadfast in your pursuit of excellence, and always do the right thing,” Esper wrote.
In a separate letter addressed to the president, Esper recapped his achievements while in office, from advancing the NDS to standing up Space Force.
“I have never been prouder to serve my country than as a Soldier or Civilian in the Department of Defense. especially knowing that the military has the faith, confidence, and support of the American people,” he wrote.
Democratic lawmakers immediately decried Trump’s decision.
“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,” House Armed Service Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a statement. "President Trump’s decision to fire Secretary Esper out of spite is not just childish, it’s also reckless.
“It has long been clear that President Trump cares about loyalty above all else, often at the expense of competence, and during a period of presidential transition competence in government is of the utmost importance.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.