Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of Pentagon Secretary Mark Esper has sparked fears that he could be about to launch military operations against Iran.
Officials at the Defense Department have said privately that Trump could be clearing the way for overt or covert operations against America’s foreign adversaries, with Iran at the top of the list.
Esper, who was fired by tweet on Monday, had previously contradicted Trump over Iran and the drone strike that killed top general Quassem Soliemani – rowing back some of the President’s statements.
The officials spoke out amid general speculation about how Trump will use his final days in office, even as he refuses to concede the election to Joe Biden – insisting that he won while making accusations of fraud.
President Donald Trump fired his Defense Secretary Mark Esper, announcing his decision in a tweet on Monday
According to the New York Times: ‘Defense Department officials have privately expressed worries that the president might initiate operations, whether overt or secret, against Iran or other adversaries during his last days in office.’
Elissa Slotkin, a former Obama-era official at the Defense Department and now a Democrat representative for Michigan, added: ‘There would only be a few reasons to fire a secretary of defense with 72 days left in an administration.
‘One would be incompetence or wrongdoing, which do not seem to be the issue with Secretary Esper.
‘A second would be vindictiveness, which would be an irresponsible way to treat our national security.
‘A third would be because the president wants to take actions that he believes his secretary of defense would refuse to take, which would be alarming.’
Trump announced that Christopher Miller, respected director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will be Esper’s replacement.
Christopher C. Miller, the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will be acting defense secretary; he is a retired Army officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq
Officials say Miller was a driving force in some of Trump’s anti-Iran and anti-Hezbollah policies, as well as counterterrorism efforts in Syria and Iraq.
Esper is thought to have been at the top of a list of officials Trump was looking to fire, after he contradicted the President several times in public.
Most-recently, Esper had opposed deploying troops on the streets to deal with a wave of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.
Following Esper’s departure, FBI Director Christopher Wray is now thought to be at the top of the list.
Miller is Trump’s fifth Pentagon chief during his four years in the White House.
He had had been confirmed by the Senate as the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Miller also performs the duties of assistant secretary of defense, overseeing the employment of special operations forces in counterterrorism.
He is a retired U.S. Army officer – and former Green Beret – who served in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. He was also in the District of Columbia National Guard as a Military Policeman.
His tenure will be short. President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20th, 2021, and will appoint his own Pentagon chief.
Esper, in an interview with the Military Times last week, pushed back on his nickname ‘yesper’ given to him by his critics, including President Trump.
‘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?”
He told the news outlet, which is widely read by members of the service, he has no regrets about how he handled himself.
‘At the end of the day, it’s as I said — you’ve got to pick your fights,’ he said. ‘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.’
In the interview, Esper pushed back on a report that he had his resignation letter ready, saying he wouldn’t quit unless it was over something really big.
‘Yeah, look, I mean ― my soldiers don’t get to quit,’ he said. ‘So if I’m going to quit, it better be over something really, really big. And otherwise, look, I’m going to do what I’ve always done, which is try and shape it the best I can.’
He said he would have quit if the White House retailed against impeachment witness Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.
Esper had signed off on Vindman’s promotion to colonel, which had been held up.
‘You know, the Army had done all its due diligence on him. He was qualified for promotion. They asked me, you know, what to do,’ he said. ‘I said, if he’s qualified for promotion, do the right thing, put him on the list. I endorse it. We’ll just let the chips fall where they might.’
Vindman decided to resign his commission and retire from the Army but, asked if he would have resigned if Trump was trying to punish Vindman, Esper said: ‘Absolutely.’
Democratic Rep. Adam Smith, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, blasted Trump’s decision.
‘President Trump’s decision to fire Secretary Esper out of spite is not just childish, it’s also reckless,’ he said in a statement.
‘It has long been clear that President Trump cares about loyalty above all else, often at the expense of competence, and during a period of presidential transition competence in government is of the utmost importance,’ he added.
Esper is a retired Army infantry lieutenant colonel and veteran of the D.C. political scene who had worked in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, and as a top lobbyist for defense giant Raytheon, which was his job when Trump named him defense secretary.
Trump has had tenuous relationships with his defense secretaries.
Jim Mattis resigned over differences with the president and amid reports he compared the president to a ‘fifth- or sixth-grader.’
Esper had reportedly prepared a resignation letter in anticipation that Trump would fire him post-election.
Mark Esper told Military Times he would have resigned if President Trump tried to take revenge on impeachment witness Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman
Esper reportedly aggravated the president when he sought to distance himself from any role in Trump’s controversial Lafayette Square photo-op in June, showing him holding up a bible in front of DC’s St John’s Episcopal Church
Last month, a report suggested that Esper along with Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel were all on Trump’s chopping block if he claims victory in the 2020 presidential race against rival Joe Biden.
Last week, three current defense officials told NBC News that Esper already has his letter ready if Trump beats Biden.
While it’s not uncommon for Cabinet secretaries to prepare undated letters of resignation during a presidential transition, Esper is said to have started his letter because his name is reportedly etched atop the president’s post-election list of officials who are expected to be pushed out.
Esper is believed to have fallen from the president’s favor over the summer when he rebuffed the idea of sending active-duty soldiers into the streets to combat racial injustice protests all over the country, spurred by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd.
The defense secretary also reportedly aggravated the president when he sought to distance himself from any role in Trump’s controversial Lafayette Square photo-op in June, showing him holding up a bible in front of DC’s St John’s Episcopal Church.
In the moments prior, law enforcement officers used tear gas and other riot control tactics to forcefully clear out protesters gathered on the square, and in the surrounding streets, so that Trump could walk from the White House to the church.
Esper also walked alongside the president, but later said he ‘didn’t know’ where he was going and never intended to participate in the photo op.
‘I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops,’ Esper told NBC at the time.
‘I didn’t know where I was going,’ he continued, adding he had ‘no idea’ about the plans to disperse protesters by force.
Esper also supported renaming military bases named for Confederate generals and leaders, which Trump opposed, and he was working with Congress to make it happen without Trump’s help.
Meanwhile, firing Wray, who has been in charge of the FBI since 2017, will reportedly also be one Trump’s first course of action, followed by the ousting of Haspel from the CIA.
The White House sources said that both Wray and Haspel are almost unanimously ‘despised and distrusted’ by Trump’s inner circle.
Trump reportedly would have fired them both already, one source said, had it not been for the November 3 election.
Firing FBI Director Christopher Wray (pictured), who has been in charge of the FBI since 2017, will reportedly be Trump’s first course of action. The White House sources said that Wray is almost unanimously ‘despised and distrusted’ by Trump’s inner circle
Trump also also intends to replace CIA director Gina Haspel (left) if he beats Biden
The president’s ire was apparently struck with Wray after he failed to launch a formal investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, and his business dealings in Ukraine.
Trump was also said to be left furious at his second FBI chief for failing to purge more officials that he believes abused their power to investigate his 2016 election campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
Additionally, Trump was reportedly aggrieved by testimony Wray offered to the Senate Homeland Security Committee last month, in which he stated the FBI has not seen widespread election fraud, including with mail-in ballots, contrary to Trump’s repeated claims.
While Trump appears less than satisfied with Wray’s FBI tenure, a senior FBI official told Axios that: ‘Major law enforcement associations representing current and former FBI agents as well as police and sheriff’s departments across the country have consistently expressed their full support of Director Wray’s leadership of the Bureau.’
As for Haspel, one source said the opinion among the West Wing is that she sees her job as ‘manipulating people and outcomes, the way she must have when she was working assets in the field’.
Such an assessment has reportedly ‘bred a lot of suspicion of her motives’. Trump is also reportedly increasingly frustrated with Haspel for opposing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe’s declassification of documents to assist in a review of the Obama administration’s handling of the Trump-Russia investigation.
But a source said Haspel may even step down from her post regardless of Trump’s apparent looming dismissal, and regardless of the outcome of the election.
‘Since the beginning of DNI’s push to declassify documents, and how strongly she feels about protecting sources connected to those materials, there have been rumblings around the agency that the director plans to depart the CIA regardless of who wins the election,’ a source told Axios.
Should Trump secure victory in the election such a win would likely encourage him to oust anyone he believes could provide a potential hindrance to the enactment of any of his desired policies.
He would also be emboldened to fire those who he sees as constraining him from investigating any of his perceived enemies.
Last month, Trump signed an executive order creating a new classification of ‘policy-making’ federal employees that could strip swaths of the federal workforce of civil service protections.
Critics blasted the order as an attempt to ‘politicize the civil service’, as it will now be easier for presidents to get rid of career government officials.
The numerous other senior officials reportedly named on Trump’s hit-list are not immediately known, though shake-ups are expected in a number of other departments.