Trump Fires Esper, Names Acting SECDEF

A lame duck President has fired his Secretary of Defense and replaced him in probably violation of the law.

As had been rumored for days, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has been fired, per a Tweet from the President.

CNN (“Trump fires Secretary of Defense Mark Esper“):

President Donald Trump announced on Twitter Monday that he has fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and that Christopher Miller, who serves as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will become acting secretary “effective immediately.”

Esper’s increasingly tense relationship with Trump led him to prepare a letter of resignation weeks ago, an attempt to fashion a graceful exit in the widely expected event that the President decided to fire him, several defense sources, including one senior defense official, told CNN.

Tensions between Esper and Trump also played out publicly and had been simmering long enough that the defense secretary had prepared a letter of resignation weeks ago, aware that the President could fire him by tweet at any time.

Esper had been on shaky ground with the White House for months, a rift that deepened after he said in June that he did not support using active-duty troops to quell the large-scale protests across the United States triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. Esper also said military forces should be used in a law enforcement role only as a last resort.

His remarks from the Pentagon briefing room were seen by many as an effort to distance himself from Trump’s threats to deploy the military to enforce order on American city streets and went over poorly at the White House, multiple people familiar with the matter said.

Steve Vladick, a national security law expert, notes that the Senate-confirmed Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Norquist, should become the Acting Secretary until and unless a new nominee is confirmed under 10 U.S.C. § 132(b). But, he allows, there may be wiggle room: “*if* the Federal Vacancies Reform Act allows the President to appoint someone else as Acting Secretary notwithstanding § 132(b), Miller is a valid choice (because of his Senate confirmation).” He’s dubious that FVRA overrides Title 10, though.

Obviously, this is irrelevant in Trump World, in that the House isn’t going to bother to impeach him in the lame duck session and the Republican-majority Senate wouldn’t vote to remove him, regardless. For that matter, even under normal circumstances, it would be politically stupid to try to impeach a President over a matter so mundane.

Trump has already started a “purge” of officials he believes disloyal and Esper is unlikely to be the last. It’s an utterly bizarre act for a man on his way out of office in a few weeks and, yet, utterly unsurprising.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tim says:

    Trump proves once again that he’s nothing more than an a$$hole and a moron. Thankfully, his moronic behavior us causing his downfall.

  2. The chaos machine just keeps spinning away.

  3. Scott says:

    One valuable thing about vast bureaucracies like the DoD, the work will grind on: budgets will be worked on, contracts will be let, troops will continue to be trained. The fundamental inertia that people rail against is now an asset. Nothing stupid will be allowed to happen.

  4. Lounsbury says:

    It can be hoped that these petty acts of vengeance will consume Trump and Co time to the exclusion of more harmful actions.

  5. Teve says:

    Linda Holmes: what’s the point of firing people now?
    Kumail Nanjiani: it’s really more about revenge and humiliation

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    trump did say he was gonna fire Esper after the election. Next will be Wray.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    First, the bad: This kind of confusion will certainly lead the nation-state bad actors in the world to contemplate a move. With the US government and defense department in disarray, for example, China may decide it is the best possible time to invade Taiwan.

    Next, the good: As Trump fires people wily nilly and the remainders cringe behind their office doors, the chance that any harm he tries to do will be incorrectly and illegally done escalates, meaning they can be rolled back even more quickly.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    If Russia wanted Estonia or China wanted Taiwan, now would be the time. But those would both require a great deal of preparation and one hopes US intel would spot a build-up.

    But it would certainly be a good time for Putin or MBS to order some more assassinations. And if Israel’s going to outright annex more of the West Bank, now better than later. And ISIS could hardly imagine a better time for a major strike, either in the US, or against US targets overseas.

  9. CSK says:

    Of course it is. But getting fired by Trump may not be all that bad a thing to have on your resume.

  10. Andy says:

    This is just another example of why many non-partisan voters like myself ended up in the Biden camp.

  11. Teve says:

    @CSK: A funny joke went around:

    What were you doing in this three year gap in your resume?
    I was in jail.
    Wait, were you working for the Trump administration?
    Nope. Jail.

  12. Teve says:

    Is anybody else finding that you click away to a new tab to look something up, and click back and every time it refreshes and deletes what you were writing in the comment box?

  13. Tony W says:

    Call me paranoid, but it feels like he is trying to get military leadership completely loyal to him as he disputes the election.

  14. Teve says:

    @Teve: turns out it’s a memory management issue, operating systems start doing it when they get low on ram. Rebooting fixed the problem.

  15. Paine says:

    There’s more serious, hyper-qualified expertise in Biden’s Covid advisory panel than in the entirety of DJT’s rotating door administration. So, so refreshing…

  16. Richard Gardner says:

    @Tony W:

    Only if you don’t understand the military and it’s domestic roles (like the Army Corps of Engineers and State National Guards, but not what you are thinking). But I don’t have a (decent) clue on what the what Trump is trying to do here. Better question is how did we end up with a choice between Trump and Biden?