President Trump announced by tweet today that he has fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and will replace him with Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
"Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service," Trump tweeted.
It is unclear if Miller has immediately become acting defense chief or if Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist temporarily has the job until Miller can assume the post. The Pentagon directed all queries to the White House and has yet to respond to a question asking which official is currently in charge of the Defense Department.
Defense officials have said for months that Trump was unhappy with Esper, especially after the defense secretary distanced himself from the president following the federal government's response to protesters and civil unrest over the summer.
Esper, who was criticized after a photo-op with Trump that occurred on the heels of peaceful protesters being forcibly removed from Washington’s Lafayette Park, publicly said he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act or using active-duty troops to quell demonstrations.
Trump, meanwhile, has lost his bid for a second term, having been ousted by President-elect Joe Biden. But Trump, without evidence, disputes the election results and has yet to concede.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) condemned Esper's firing and said Trump is being “childish” and “reckless."
“In the national security community, it is well known that periods of presidential transition leave our country exposed to unique threats,” he said in a statement. “Until President-Elect Biden is sworn into office next January, it is imperative that the Pentagon remain under stable, experienced leadership. 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.”
Esper’s firing continues the Trump administration’s pattern of senior-level churn at the Pentagon and plunges the planned presidential transition process into uncertainty. Jen Stewart, Esper’s chief of staff, is slated to run the transition process and it is unclear if she will remain following Esper’s firing.
Esper was Trump’s third Pentagon chief. His first was Jim Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who left amid disagreement with the president over the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. Mattis was followed by former Boeing executive Pat Shanahan, who served as acting defense secretary before resigning following media reports detailing past violent incidents involving his ex-wife and son.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was acting defense secretary for a period of days in July 2019 before Esper was confirmed. Spencer was eventually fired as Navy secretary and replaced in an acting capacity by Thomas Modly, who himself was later fired.
Miller will be Trump’s fourth acting defense secretary in four years. Prior to Trump, there have been only two acting defense secretaries since 1947.
Esper, a former Raytheon executive, began his time in the Trump administration as the president’s third choice to be Army secretary after two previous nominees fell through. The first pick, businessman Vincent Viola, withdrew from consideration over concerns about the required financial divestitures, and the second, then-Tennessee State Sen. Mark Green, was forced from the process amid controversy over past legislative efforts and statements criticized as bigoted. Green has since been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Esper today released his final Pentagon-wide memo. He noted accomplishments like standing up the Space Force and laying out a new vision for the size of the Navy.
"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.
In closing, Esper advised all members of DOD to “stay focused on your mission, remain steadfast in your pursuit of excellence, and always do the right thing.”