President Donald Trump’s firing of Mark Esper, his secretary of defense, can best be seen as an act of pure spite. The move came as no surprise. Some time ago, Esper penned and placed in his drawer a letter of resignation, anticipating his imminent ouster. By firing him on Monday, Trump preempted Esper’s preemption.
Trump has viewed Esper as an irritant ever since June, shortly after the police killing of George Floyd, when the secretary publicly said he would refuse to call up active-duty military troops to put down protests in American cities. Until then, Esper had been widely mocked as “Secretary Yesper” for his lap dog–like kowtowing to Trump’s wishes. The pivot came on June 1, when Trump roped him and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, into a photo-op outside St. John’s Church, across the street from the White House, after police used tear gas to clear protesters from nearby Lafayette Square. Within days, Esper and Milley both apologized for their part in the spectacle.
From that point on, Esper spoke out against Trump’s policies on several occasions—defying the commander in chief’s views not only on whether the Insurrection Act should be invoked to put down domestic protests but also on whether U.S. Army bases in the American South should continue to be named after Confederate generals. In recent weeks, Esper has offered to help Congress draft a law to require a name change.
The firing may be touted as a feather in Esper’s cap. He has tried to dispel the “Yesper” image for some time. In an interview just last week with Military Times, he said: “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. Have you ever seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’ ”
In any case, unless Trump really believes that his court challenges might reverse the results of last week’s election and keep him in office next year, the move will have no tangible effect. Trump did name a replacement to take Esper’s post—Christopher Miller, a retired Army Green Beret and former deputy assistant secretary of defense who has been director of the National Counterterrorism Center since August. But Miller will hold the job for a mere 10 weeks, barely enough time to get the lay of the land, much less make an imprint on policy or anything else. (For Americans worried about whether Trump will refuse to leave office, the military will pivot away from him to Biden on Jan. 20 in accordance with the 20th Amendment of the Constitution, whatever Miller says.)
There is one way Miller could have a huge impact, and it’s a potential concern. Presidents transmit military orders through the secretary of defense. If Trump wanted to launch some invasion or attack in his final desperate days, Esper, if he’d stayed on, might have slow-rolled such an order. Would Miller—the acting secretary of defense, with no accountability to Congress—be more inclined to salute and execute? Probably it would depend, in part, on the order. He would still consult the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the order would be executed by U.S. combatant commanders. They, the nation’s top officers, would be held accountable for the consequences after the fact. If their legal staff interpreted it as an unlawful order, they could refuse to carry it out and not face accusations of insubordination.
It is doubtful that Trump would start a war as a flashing middle finger to the nation that rejected him. For one thing, he’s not that bold. Still, the next 10 weeks are going to be a tense time, on many scores. The removal of a defense secretary who, from Trump’s view, had practically joined the resistance might heighten the tension.
In the final days of President Richard Nixon, who was known to be drinking heavily and acting moodily in the wake of Watergate and the run-up to impeachment, his defense secretary, James Schlesinger, quietly asked the Joint Chiefs to inform him if they receive any “unusual orders” from the White House. Are today’s chiefs quietly asking Miller to come to them with any similarly strange communiqués? I don’t know, but it’s a good bet that the proper authorities are on high alert.