US President Donald Trump said on Monday that he had terminated Defense Secretary Mark Esper, signaling he may use his final months in office after defeat at the polls to settle scores within his administration.
Trump had split with Esper over a range of issues and was particularly angered by Esper’s public opposition to Trump’s threats to use active duty military forces this summer to suppress street protests over racial injustice after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Democrats reacted with alarm, saying Trump’s move sent a dangerous message to America’s adversaries and dimmed hopes for an orderly transition as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.
The abrupt firing of Secretary Esper is disturbing evidence that President Trump is intent on using his final days in office to sow chaos in our American Democracy and around the world, said House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Representative Adam Smith, the Democrat who leads the House Armed Services Committee, condemned Trump’s decision as childish and reckless.
Trump said on Twitter that Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, was taking over as acting secretary of defense. The Senate would be highly unlikely to confirm a new nominee before Trump leaves office in January.
Mark Esper has been terminated, Trump said in a tweet, adding that Miller would be acting secretary effective immediately.
Sources said Esper had long been preparing for his resignation or dismissal following last week’s election, particularly if Trump were to win a second term in office.
In a letter to the Defense Department issued early Monday evening, Esper said he was stepping aside aware that there is much more we could accomplish.
Esper commended the military for remaining apolitical, a refrain that he often used and which Trump’s opponents saw as implicit criticism of the president’s attempts to portray the military as his constituency amid defence budget hikes.
Trump has had an uneasy relationship with the Pentagon, where Esper and top brass have repeatedly sought to avoid being seen as a political instrument of the Trump administration.
Esper’s predecessor, Jim Mattis, quit in 2018 over policy differences with Trump, including on Syria. Mattis in June criticized Trump as the “first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us.”