On Monday of this week, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows—fresh from testing positive for COVID-19—called Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to let him know that President Trump was removing him from his cabinet position.
The call had no sooner ended when Trump informed the world via tweet that Christopher Miller, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was the acting Defense secretary, effectively immediately. The tweet ended bluntly: “Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”
With that, Esper’s 16-month tenure was over. Another public servant, ejected unceremoniously, reputation tainted by the president for the crime of attempting to serve as his character and conscience dictated.
Esper’s firing was abrupt but not a complete surprise. He’d fallen out of favor after pushing back on Trump’s desire to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 in order to deploy active duty troops to quell unrest associated with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Esper, still stinging from how he’d been co-opted to participate in Trump’s Bible stunt across Lafayette Square, told the Pentagon press corps, “I say this not only as secretary of Defense, but also as a former soldier, and a former member of the National Guard: 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. We are not in one of those situations now.”
I suspect that what pushed Trump to the breaking point was Esper saying “as a former soldier.” It was a reminder that Esper is West Point grad who earned the Bronze Star for valorous conduct during Desert Storm while Donald Trump is . . . Donald Trump. But even before the Lafayette Square incident, Esper had found himself cross-threaded with the White House on issues ranging from Trump’s summary transgender “ban” and the pardoning of war criminals, to the military’s COVID response and the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. In each case, Esper was made to see that his commander-in-chief had no appetite for precedent or the assessment of fact. The only thing the president valued was unconditional loyalty. Intellect was only to be reverse engineered and weaponized in service of the president’s will.
Esper’s pedigree was never going to allow him to be a loyalist and Trump punishes those who aren’t loyal in myriad ways: pushing hot buttons, creating loyalty tests, watching how subordinates respond, in extreme cases even tacitly daring them to quit and doubling down on the abuse when they don’t. That abuse can take the form of issuing nicknames (Trump dubbed Esper “Yesper” in an attempt to brand him as a sycophant even when he wasn’t) or petty gestures, like the way he left the Pentagon without a spokesperson by taking DoD’s Alyssa Farrah and making her Kayleigh McEnany’s right hand at the White House.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that President Trump has focused his toxic management on the Pentagon. As much as anything else, he seems to see the presidency as a platform for settling scores and establishing himself as America’s Alpha Dog. And nothing in his profile is as challenging to that status as the fact everyone in the country knows that Trump ducked serving during Vietnam on bogus medical grounds. Cadet Bone Spurs has seen the last four years as a way of trying to subjugate the men and women who actually answered their nation’s call.
So, he came into office and surrounded himself with what he called “all the best generals” and slowly, methodically, set about an effort to soil their lives of accomplishment. One-by-one respected military figures such as Jim Mattis (“overrated”), John Kelly (“out of his league”), and H.R. McMaster (“a beer salesman”) were chewed up and spit out from the podiums of the White House Press Room or at rallies or, most prolifically, in tweets. Trump has shown his disdain for the military by ignoring the chain of command and, in several extreme cases, giving enlisted men—both active duty and veteran—direct access to his office as he formulated his approaches to national defense. In four years, he has had five secretaries of Defense—three of them acting—and none of them has left gracefully.
Trump’s election loss has accelerated his settling of scores, which is why Esper is gone. Don’t look for any meaning beyond that. Trump doesn’t play chess. He doesn’t even play checkers. He plays the binary game of “I win, you lose” that changes moment to moment. And at this moment he’s satisfied that he showed Yesper who the real big man is.
There is some concern as to what acting Secretary Christopher Miller, he of Green Beret street cred but lacking executive experience, and the band of FOX News regulars and conspiracy theorists with whom Trump has surrounded him, will do in the next two months. The worries include a force-fed initiative to get American forces out of Afghanistan by Inauguration Day.
The reality is that a conflict that has lasted over 19 years can’t end for good in a couple of months. We fought this war in a uniquely American way, which is to say, when faced with an asymmetric threat that largely consisted of bands of insurgents armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, we countered with platoons of highly trained infantry and special operators supported by drones, helicopters, and attack jets directed by fully staffed mission control centers. Even if we pull all of the warfighters out tomorrow, somebody has to stay behind to guard the stuff we don’t want to fall into Taliban, Russian, or Chinese hands until we can dismantle everything and load it on a few hundred sorties worth of C-17s.
That can’t happen between now and January 20, 2021.
No, most likely what’s going to happen at the Pentagon during the next few weeks is that Trump loyalists will make meetings unpleasant for the uniformed folks around the E-Ring.
Yes, this is small comfort. But in the meantime we can hope that actual stewards of democracy in those rooms will take good notes. Because this interregnum should make for interesting reading in the early days of the Biden administration.