On Monday, President Donald Trump fired his defense secretary, Mark Esper, via a tweet and announced that the director of the National Counterterrorism Center would become the acting secretary.
Major U.S. news outlets projected on Saturday that former Vice President Joe Biden won last week’s election and will become president in January.
In his final message to the defense department, Esper highlighted the modernization of the United States’ nuclear arsenal, the establishment of the Space Force, and the plans for a bigger, 500-ship navy among his proudest accomplishments as defense secretary.
Trump reportedly became furious with Esper during nationwide protests against racism and police violence against Black Americans over the summer after video circulated of the killing of an unarmed Black man by a White police officer in Minnesota. Trump wanted to use the active duty military forces to quell protesters, a plan Esper publicly disagreed with. Instead, the defense secretary worked to deescalate tensions over the use of federal forces against civilians.
Esper earlier conducted an interview in anticipation of being either fired or forced to resign after falling out of favor with Trump over the summer. Esper pushed back against criticisms that he did not stand up to many of Trump’s capricious national security edicts.
Esper told the Military Times, “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 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.”
As part of the broader national reckoning with racism taking place, Esper also supported the renaming of U.S. Army bases named after Confederate generals who fought against the United States during the Civil War. Trump quickly quashed that effort out of concern that it would alienate voters in southern states that he would need to win reelection.
Esper implied that he was selective in what he spoke out against out of concern that whoever would replace him as defense secretary might not be willing to stand up against Trump’s most dangerous impulses: “At the end of the day, it’s as I said — you’ve got to pick your fights. 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.”
Christopher Miller, the senior official named by Trump to serve as acting secretary, has a long career in counterterrorism, both as an army special forces officer and as a civilian advisor to the defense department. Normally the deputy secretary of defense is required to act in the absence of the secretary and there is some uncertainty whether Miller can legally fill the position.
It is unlikely that a permanent secretary will be confirmed before Biden’s inauguration as president in January. Michelle Flournoy, a former senior defense official during the Obama administration, is widely expected to be nominated as Biden’s secretary of defense, and would be the first woman to hold the position.