As had long been expected, President Donald Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday, cutting short what would have otherwise been his final months at the Pentagon, in anticipation of President-elect Joe Biden’s transition in January.
Delivered via tweet, Trump announced Chris Miller, previously the National Counterterrorism Center director, will step in immediately as acting defense secretary.
Esper’s Pentagon exit had been expected for months, as tension both subtle and obvious bubbled with the White House. Some had expected that Esper would beat him to the punch with a resignation, but with the election coming up, it appeared neither side wanted to rock that particular boat.
In fact, Esper went nearly underground in the run-up to the election, last hosting a Pentagon briefing in late July. He continued to bring reporters along on several trips both within the U.S. and abroad, but declined on-the-record interviews. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s apparent election victory temporarily quelled rumors that Esper would either resign or be fired, but in the end, the Trump administration decided it would rather finish out its last 10 weeks with someone else.
Speaking to Military Times in an exclusive interview on Nov. 4, Esper confirmed that he never had any intention of quitting, and though he expected the other shoe to drop, he didn’t have a good read on when.
“So what I’m trying to do is, kind of, share my views and perspectives while they’re still fresh,” he said.
He was also conscious of his legacy, particularly where it concerned the National Defense Strategy.
“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,” he said. "Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’ "
Protect this house
Esper’s tenure dovetailed with a historic shift in Pentagon priorities, from the decades-long war on terrorism to the “era of great power competition” ― in other words, something of a new Cold War, but this time involving North Korea, Russia, and most importantly, China.
More than anything, it’s clear the NDS was his baby, and he was willing to go to great lengths to protect it.
“Everybody’s on board, until you start talking money and people,” he said of the general support for the NDS. “And then people fall off board, right?”
Never was that more clear than in late July, when he announced a plan to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany.
Some of them would be moving to other parts of Europe, while others could return to the U.S. to deploy on a rotational basis to NATO’s eastern boundary, where troops had been training local forces for years.
“And then you go and you start doing [combatant command] reviews, and you start moving things and pulling things out. And then they say, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, not that. That’s too important. That’s hard work,’” he said. “That’s the stuff where you’ve got to make the hard calls, where people say, ‘Oh, if you do this, you’ll break that.’”
The president had asked for 10,000 troops out of Germany, Esper said.
“And look, I can’t control — I can only control what I do,” he said. “The president’s going to — he’s very transparent in terms of what he wants. And he’s been very clear about his views … I’m not trying to make anybody happy. What I’m trying to do is, fulfill what he wants — I mean, he’s the duly elected commander in chief — and make the best out of it.”
Publicly, Trump had lambasted Germany for not paying 2 percent of its gross domestic product into NATO, and after the realignment’s announcement, Trump promptly told that country they had it coming.
“Some of those ideas were ideas that were out there for years that folks just didn’t have the courage or the willpower to propose,” Esper said, explaining that he had taken the president’s request and tried to carry it out as thoughtfully and strategically as possible.
Throw in a nationwide movement for racial justice and the possible end of the war in Afghanistan.
When it came down to it, Esper said, he felt like he couldn’t throw in the towel, no matter how dysfunctional his relationship with the administration became.
Like retired Marine Gen. James Mattis before him, Esper gave off the distinct aura of someone trying to be the adult in the room, the last line of defense between the world’s most powerful military and a commander in chief who saw it as a political bludgeon.
“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.”
He did come close once, though, he said.
Following his testimony in Trump’s impeachment proceedings, concern flared that the administration might try to retaliate against now-retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who had been a Ukraine expert at the National Security Council.
Months after his February testimony, something appeared amiss, as the Army’s expected colonel promotion list had still not dropped. Vindman’s camp alleged that someone in the chain of command was holding it up, though behind the scenes, both Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Esper had signed off.
“You know, the Army had done all its due diligence on him. He was qualified for promotion. They asked me, you know, what to do,” he said. “I said, if he’s qualified for promotion, do the right thing, put him on the list. I endorse it. We’ll just let the chips fall where they might.”
In the end, Vindman decided to resign his commission and retire from the Army, with no public indication of whether the president intended to overrule Esper’s judgment.
But if Trump had decided to punish Vindman, would that have been too far? Would Esper have resigned?
“Yeah, no, absolutely,” he said.
‘I think he’ll do very well’
Esper, a retired Army infantry lieutenant colonel and veteran of the D.C. political scene who had worked in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, in the leadership of a conservative think tank and as a top lobbyist for defense giant Raytheon, appeared to have all the right bullet points for the job.
Though he had been Trump’s third pick for Army secretary ― the previous two had been undone by financial entanglements and bigoted public comments about the LGBTQ community, respectively ― Esper took to the job like a grunt to a case of Rip-Its.
His first order of business was to start slashing cumbersome administrative and training requirements, starting with media awareness and a mandatory personal travel reporting system, eventually culminating in the downfall of the legendary PT belt.
That all began with a visit to the post gym at Fort Myer, Virginia, when a specialist on a nearby treadmill started blasting music directly from his phone to spice up his run.
“Why don’t you just wear earphones like everybody else?” Esper recalled asking him. “'My chain of command says I’m not allowed to wear earphones while I’m running,’ Why not? ‘Because I’ll get hit by a car like that.’ ... And I’m like saying ... ‘that’s why you run with a PT belt, too?’ That’s why I got rid of that. It’s stupid.”
Then came the Army’s acquisition revolution, anchored by the newly anointed Army Futures Command, tasked with the research and development for five new programs that would completely revamp its ground combat capabilities.
Esper and then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who would later become his chairman of the Joint Chiefs, spent many of their evenings in what they affectionately called “night court,” running through lists of procurement programs and picking off all but what they deemed the most necessary.
The final body count included more than $25 billion in savings.
Months later, rumors started swirling that Esper was on the short list to replace Mattis, who had quit just before Christmas 2018.
In his resignation letter, Mattis opined that he could not be complicit in forsaking America’s allies ― presumably, in response to Trump’s order to withdraw troops from Syria, troops who had been fighting along with local Kurds to keep the Islamic State in check.
Former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, Mattis’s deputy, had moved into the acting role, but the feeling was that Trump might not nominate him for the top job.
Speculation came to a crashing halt last June, when details of Shanahan’s decade-old, contentious divorce leaked, and he resigned from the Pentagon entirely to head off the public glare.
“Mark Esper, who is a highly respected gentleman, with a great career ― West Point, Harvard ― a tremendous talent,” Trump told reporters outside the White House. “I think he’ll do very well.”
He was in hot water almost immediately, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., grilled him mercilessly at his July 2019 confirmation hearing over his declining to promise to recuse himself from any deals with Raytheon.
“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” Warren said. “Will you commit that during your time as defense secretary that you will not seek any waiver that will allow you to participate in matters that affect Raytheon’s financial interests?”
He would not, he said, on the advice of DoD’s lawyers.
Despite the altercation, he sailed through the confirmation process and weathered the rest of the year relatively unscathed, even garnering praise for reviving the Pentagon’s press briefings, which had been shut down for more than a year at the time.
While trying to keep his head down and lay the groundwork for the new national defense strategy Mattis announced in 2018, Esper took fire on the Pentagon’s decision to move billions out of its counter-drug and military construction accounts to fund a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Then 2020 came around, kicking off with Iran and the U.S. on the brink of war following the president’s order to assassinate a top Iranian general who had masterminded countless insurgent attacks on U.S. and coalition troops fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.
Though Trump and Esper were united in their strategic decision, the cracks started to show when it came to the 100-plus service members who sustained traumatic brain injuries in Iran’s revenge attack on an Iraqi air base.
“No, I don’t consider them very serious relative to other injuries I’ve seen,” Trump said during a January press conference, comparing what he referred to as “headaches” to the aftermath of Iranian road side bombs, including “people with no legs and no arms.”
Esper assured that he had explained to the president that so-called mild traumatic brain injuries can have long-term, devastating effects.
“I’ve had the chance to speak with the president. He is very concerned about the health and welfare of all of our service members — particularly those who were involved in the operations in Iraq,” he said, though he did not elaborate on whether the talk came before or after Trump’s statements. “And he understands the nature of these injuries.”
Beginning of the end
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic soon took over the news coming out of both the White House and the Pentagon, as Esper and the military services scrambled to put in place physical distancing regulations, testing protocols and more in an effort to keep DoD churning as it felt like the world burned around it.
After a Black man from Minneapolis, George Floyd, died at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, protests erupted in front of the White House, and Esper took a fateful walk across a forcefully cleared Lafayette Square so that Trump could hold up a Bible and say a few words in front of the fire-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The following day, Esper briefed the press, trying to explain how he unknowingly walked into that political disaster.
“Look, I do everything I can to try and stay apolitical, trying to stay out of situations that may appear political,” Esper said. “And sometimes I’m successful at doing that. And sometimes I’m not as successful.”
Then he had his first public break with the president, who had ordered active-duty troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to assemble outside the D.C. area in case they were needed to put down violent protests.
“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper said, strongly countering the president’s threatening message. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
The president was reportedly furious.
“I was really concerned that that continued talk about Insurrection Act was going to take us in a direction, take us into a really dark direction," Esper said. "And I wanted to make clear what I thought about the situation as secretary of defense and the role of the active-duty forces. And to kind of break the fever, if you will, because I thought that was just a moment in history where ... if somebody doesn’t stand up now and say something and kind of push the pause button, then ... it could spiral.”
When then-Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, who is Black, decided to speak out about his experiences as a person of color in the military, DoD couldn’t put the horse back in the barn.
The services and the top levels of the Pentagon all set about creating task forces to improve diversity and inclusion within the services.
As part of that discussion, the issue of 10 Army posts named for Confederate officers resurfaced, as it had periodically in previous years.
Both Army Secretary McCarthy and Esper signaled they were open to the idea of changing them, but the president quickly shut down that idea, threatening to veto the National Defense Authorization Act if Congress tried to slip in a provision to change the names.
The other issue was the flying of the Confederate flag on DoD installations.
“So I thought I had a really clever way, creative way of addressing it,” he said.
In mid-July, Esper issued a memo that banned the flying of all flags other than those of U.S. states, allied countries and those of military units in all common areas, offices and otherwise public spaces on military bases.
The memo did not mention the Confederate flag by name, and so additionally effectively banned a host of other flags, from those expressing LGBTQ pride to college sports and beyond.
“So I don’t want the military politicized any which way — I don’t want a Confederate flag. I don’t want a Proud Boys flag … take any of your groups on the left, I don’t want their flags,” he said.
His reasoning, he said, was to take out any and all perceived politics.
“The principle is here, what’s consistent with our values. One of those values was ... we don’t want a flag that was aligned with an organization that, you know, committed treason against the country,” he said. “But the other one is, don’t be political. And so my view was, let’s take a different approach: let’s affirm the centrality of the U.S. flag as the flag for the U.S. military, as simple as that may be, and then everything else just doesn’t have a place with us.”
But the backlash was swift. In trying to avoid a controversy over allowing some political flags but not others, Esper found himself accused of a different kind of bigotry, for banning the rainbow pride flag.
“And yeah, I knew we knew we would take some heat for that. That’s fine. But again, if you go back to the core principle: keep the military apolitical,” he said. “And as I said, to the folks at the time, if you want to come back later, and get waivers for this flag or that flag, come back. Guess what? Nobody’s come back to me.”
The endless war
Of course, woven through Esper’s entire tenure was the specter of a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a campaign promise that Trump was intent on keeping.
Against the backdrop of Taliban peace talks, first with U.S. diplomats and then with the Afghan government, the president started issuing orders about cutting numbers.
In consultation with the chain of command, the Pentagon settled on reducing troop levels from roughly 8,000 down to 4,000. From there, Esper and Milley said time and time again, it would be a conditions-based drawdown.
Just weeks ago, Milley appeared on NPR and, in his way, shot down White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s assertion that the drawdown was heading for 2,500.
“I think that, you know, Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit,” Milley said. “I’m not going to engage in speculation. I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”
Trump also waded into the discussion, tweeting that the U.S. “should” have the rest of its troops home by Christmas.
Esper’s office stayed as far away from the discussion as possible, as it had in countless instances where it appeared that DoD and the White House were not on the same page.
Declining to clarify anything on the record was a purposeful strategy, Esper said.
“Imagine this: ‘Disregard what the president said. This is still the plan,’” Esper suggested. “Now, if I were the president, I’d say, ‘Really? Here you go. Here’s a written piece of paper. You’re coming home by December.’”
Esper’s explanation of his thought process loudly echoed the one laid out by former Homeland Security Department official Miles Taylor in an anonymous 2018 New York Times essay, in which he described members of Trump’s staff removing memos from his desk and otherwise trying to redirect the president’s attention in order to keep him from doing something rash.
“You’ve got to think through steps two, three and four. And often folks don’t do that,” Esper said. “Why get in a mudslinging match when you’re still working for the commander in chief? That doesn’t get you anywhere.”
In the balance, in the case of the Afghanistan withdrawal, are thousands of troops and their families wondering if they are in fact coming home, or if that deployment they’re planning their lives around will still happen.
“It may be a little bit uncertain for some folks, but I know the chain of command completely knows what we’re doing and where we’re going,” Esper said.
Have other defense secretaries had to spend this much time trying to balance the president’s demands with their very real consequences to national security?
“Probably not,” he said. “I don’t know, I’ve only worked for a couple.”
But he has no regrets about how he handled himself.
“At the end of the day, it’s as I said — you’ve got to pick your fights,” he said. “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? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.