Watch CBSN Live

Trump fires Defense Secretary Mark Esper 6 days after election

Trump fires Secretary of Defense Mark Esper
Trump fires Secretary of Defense Mark Esper 02:28

Washington — President Trump fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper over Twitter on Monday, less than a week after the election, ousting his third defense secretary months after a public dispute over deploying U.S. troops on American soil to tamp down on protests.

"Mark Esper has been terminated," Mr. Trump wrote. "I would like to thank him for his service."

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows called Esper on Monday shortly before the president's tweet to tell him he was fired, a defense official told CBS News. Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he was installing Christopher Miller, the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting secretary, effective immediately. Miller was spotted entering the Pentagon Monday afternoon.

Leading Democrats in Congress protested Esper's firing, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi House Speaker calling the move "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." 

"Continuity and stability are always important during a presidential transition; they are absolutely imperative at this moment, as this historically erratic administration prepares for its departure," Pelosi said in a statement.

In a letter to his department that didn't mention Mr. Trump once, Esper said it has been "the honor and privilege of a lifetime to serve alongside you as the 27th U.S. Secretary of Defense."

"While I step aside knowing 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," Esper wrote.

Esper fell out of favor with the president months ago, and reports have swirled for several weeks that Mr. Trump was preparing to fire him after the election. An NBC News report last week that Esper had prepared a letter of resignation prompted a denial by the Pentagon, with a spokesperson saying he had no plans to step down. 

The defense chief publicly contradicted Mr. Trump over the administration's response to protests against racial injustice over the summer, saying in June that he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty military troops to the streets to quell unrest.

"The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations," he said as protests over the police killing of George Floyd roiled cities across the country. "We are not in one of those situations now."

His comments came several days after a contentious Oval Office meeting in which Mr. Trump demanded 10,000 active-duty troops be deployed immediately, according to a senior administration official who described the events at the time. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley objected to the demand, this official said, and later encouraged governors to call up their own National Guard forces to eliminate the need for troops.

Milley and Esper appeared alongside the president outside a church near the White House for a much-criticized photo-op with the Bible. Police used tear gas to violently remove peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Park to clear the way for the president, who was flanked by the defense chief, the Joint Chiefs chairman and other administration officials. Esper and Milley were apparently unaware of the president's intentions when they joined him.

In an interview with The Military Times conducted November 4 and published Monday after news of his firing, Esper defended his tenure at the Pentagon and said he does "everything I can to try and stay apolitical, trying to stay out of situations that may appear political."

"And sometimes I'm successful at doing that. And sometimes I'm not as successful," he added.

America Protests Washington Esper
President Trump departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church in Washington on June 1, 2020. Patrick Semansky / AP

The White House disputed the characterization of the earlier Oval Office meeting at which Esper rebuffed the president's demands for troops, but his public comments opposing the use of the Insurrection Act several days later were not well-received at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany pointedly declined to say the president still had confidence in his defense secretary.

"With regard to whether the president has confidence, I would say, if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper, I'm sure you all will be the first to know," McEnany said at a briefing on June 3.

After the public exchange with the White House, Esper largely stayed out of the public spotlight. He last held a briefing at the Pentagon in July and embarked on a series of foreign trips. 

In August, Mr. Trump derided Esper as "Yesper" when asked if he was considering firing him, an apparent reference to critics' contention that Esper was a "yes-man."

"I consider firing everybody," the president told reporters. "At some point, that's what happens."

In his Military Times interview, Esper disputed the notion that he was a "yes-man."

"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," he said. "Have you seen me on a stage saying, 'Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?' "

David Martin contributed reporting.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.