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'Terminated': Mark Esper fired as Pentagon chief after contradicting Trump

Appointed last year, secretary of defence was close ally of outgoing US President Donald Trump until a series of policy moves put the two at odds
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper speaks next to President Donald Trump after his swearing-in at the White House on 23 July (AFP/File photo)

US President Donald Trump fired Defence Secretary Mark Esper on Monday, just over two months before he is set to leave office, replacing the Pentagon head with a senior intelligence official. 

"Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service," the president tweeted on Monday, two days after he lost at the ballot-box to now President-elect Joe Biden. 

Christopher Miller, head of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), is now set to immediately become acting defence secretary. 

"Chris will do a GREAT job!" Trump said in Monday's tweet. 

The president did not announce who would take over Miller's position at NCTC during the next two months. 

Outgoing presidents typically keep their Pentagon chiefs in place until Inauguration Day to preserve stability in the name of national security. 

President-elect Biden did not immediately comment on Trump's move, but Obama's former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking to CNN just after the announcement, slammed Esper's sacking as irresponsible and a threat to national security. 

"It's vindictive of a president to do this at this stage when the country is trying to do a transition to a new administration," he said. 

"He's going to make it ugly to the very end," Panetta continued.

"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," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith also criticised the firing, arguing the defence department needs "stable, experienced leadership" during the presidential transition.

"Dismissing politically appointed national security leaders during a transition is a destabilizing move that will only embolden our adversaries and put our country at greater risk. President Trump's decision to fire Secretary Esper out of spite is not just childish, it's also reckless," Smith added.

Miller will become the fourth official to head the post during Trump's presidency. 

Esper's fallout

Esper was appointed as Pentagon chief in July 2019, replacing then-acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who resigned just before confirmation hearings in order to "to devote more time to his family" after six months on the job. 

Just before Shanahan, the Pentagon was led by retired general Jim Mattis, who had resigned from the post over disagreements with Trump's foreign policy, particularly the unilateral decision to withdraw roughly 2,000 American troops from Syria. 

In line with the president on major foreign policy issues, Esper's relationship with Trump essentially peaked in January of this year following the US's assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. 

Soon after, however, Esper contradicted President Trump's "imminent threat" justification for the killing, saying he did not see specific evidence from intelligence officials that Iran was planning to attack four US embassies, an assertion repeatedly made by the Trump administration.

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In June, the defence secretary became critical of Trump's use of active-duty troops against anti-racism protesters that had taken to the streets nationwide.

Esper was particularly concerned over the tear-gassing of peaceful demonstrators outside the White House one afternoon to make way for a presidential photo shoot in front of a nearby church. 

Trump was reportedly livid after Esper, who joined the president and other officials for a walk to the just-tear gassed site, said he "didn't know" he was heading towards a presidential photo opp. 

"I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops," Esper told NBC. "I didn't know where I was going."

American military officials are barred from taking part in partisan politics. 

The outgoing defence secretary continued to move out of line regarding Trump policies in the following months, announcing in July a de facto ban of Confederate flag displays on military bases and stating his support for renaming Confederate-inspired army posts and military bases. At the time, a furious Trump tweeted that he would not allow bases to be renamed. 

In August, Esper contradicted Trump regarding the massive deadly blast that hit Beirut, telling media the blast was an "accident" despite the president's baseless suggestion that it was "a terrible attack". The blast was found to be an accident. 

Esper had reportedly already written his letter of resignation ahead of Tuesday's election, but according to Politico, an "increasing number of defense establishment figures" had been asking him to stick around to ensure a peaceful transition. 

War hawk Miller

Due to Esper's abrupt termination, it will be up to Miller to oversee the transition from the outgoing Trump administration to the newly elected Biden administration. 

Before his post as head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Miller previously served as a senior Pentagon official for special operations, worked on the National Security Council and served as the special assistant to the President.

Miller helped oversee the raid that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, sitting in on the operation from the Situation Room with President Trump and other top officials and aides. 

"I’ll tell you what, we – that shook them to their core, that's what I saw. And they have not been able to reestablish their command and control. And we've kept the pressure on," Miller said of the raid during a virtual discussion with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in October. 

During the discussion, Miller called slain Iranian general Soleimani a "remarkable" and "truly charismatic" figure whose assassination was "very detrimental to the Iranian regime". 

While Miller is seen as a war hawk typical of the Trump administration, his appointment is not expected to have major impacts on foreign policy due to the short period in which he can lead under the outgoing administration.