Defense Secretary Mark Esper (Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis /
Trump fires Secretary of Defense Esper, who took one ‘principled stand’ but changed little else

Another steward of the status quo who promised reforms and never delivered, exits the stage.

First it was the ‘adult in the room’ James Mattis. Trump’s inaugural defense secretary resigned in part over Trump’s late 2018 announcement that he wanted to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria. Next was Patrick Shanahan, who resigned in June 2019 after the Washington Post published an expose on the acting secretary’s domestic problems.

Now it’s Mark Esper’s turn. Two months before a new president is sworn in, Donald Trump tweeted today that he is “terminating” his current secretary and filling his position with Christopher Miller, retired special forces officer who continued to work closely with his old comrades in the military as a defense contractor before putting that aside to join the Trump administration in 2016. He has served different roles in the White House, DoD, and finally, as director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Esper’s resignation was widely anticipated in the media; his abrupt firing was not. Though there was no love lost between the two men, it is unprecedented for a losing president to deep-six his defense secretary right after the election and before a new administration can take over. Fortunately, far from a Trump crony or high-end donor, Miller appears to know his way around the building and may assuage some of the fears that Esper’s firing will cause some sort of security rift, or send the wrong messages to allies and adversaries abroad (though we are sure those arguments will be made in the coming days)(Update, here).

The establishment will no doubt circle the wagons around Esper. He is characterized by many who spoke to Responsible Statecraft as a stalwart caretaker of the Pentagon leviathan, running interference with the services, doing his best to put his commander-in-chief directives into actionable policy, and serving capably during turbulent times, whether it be COVID in the ranks, kinetic exchanges with Iran earlier in the year, or domestic protests that at one point dragged the military into the spotlight.

He was publicly admonished when he initially spoke about “dominating the battlespace” in reference to the growing street protests and accompanying violence in the nation’s biggest cities after the police killing of George Floyd. He was also called out for engaging in a June 1 photo op with President Trump in Lafayette Square during the mostly peaceful protests in D.C. He later told the press he “regretted” the battlespace comment, distanced himself from the photo op, and insisted he opposed any invocation of the Insurrection Act to put active duty soldiers on American streets. This last statement got him back into good graces with the press.

“(The president) was dead wrong and Esper knew it,” Ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, told RS. “To his credit, he lost influence in the administration for this principled stand.”

Esper’s stand against the president on this issue will no doubt sustain, if not boost his reputation in a post-Trump Washington. But critics say once the dust falls, we will realize that Esper was little more than an efficient manager of the status quo, who did very little to reform the Byzantine procurement and acquisitions process that results in the waste of untold billions of taxpayer dollars, or help pivot the military to a peacetime posture. Instead he skillfully maintained the cozy relationships with the defense industry, protected the revolving door, and took the “savings” he meticulously found in a much heralded budget reform process and started moving it to buttress a new cold war posture with China.

“He was very much a product of the national security establishment with his ties to industry and acceptance of the great power competition conventional wisdom,” said Dan Grazier, an Afghanistan and Iraq combat veteran and defense fellow at the Project on Government Oversight.

“(He) was in most ways a traditional, status quo Secretary of Defense, one who demonstrated his bona fides in the defense contractor business by moving the U.S. military not a step from ongoing or future contracts with the Military Industrial Complex, in fact making more, as well as declaring as mortal enemies the usual suspects, China and Russia, in order to make even more contracts,” added Wilkerson.

Esper is a career military man and former top lobbyist for Raytheon, which is the fourth largest U.S. defense contractor today, having received over $15 billion in government contracts in 2019. During his 2019 confirmation hearings, according to Mandy Smithberger at the Center for Defense Information, Esper refused to say whether he would recuse himself from all Raytheon business matters once in the office, even though he had worked there less than two years before.

“I think Esper came into the position by thinking he could reform the Pentagon, but at least as secretary there isn’t a lot to show for that effort,” said Smithberger. “He undermined it, in part, by pursuing efforts like trying to weaken revolving door laws (an effort that was defeated in the senate) and refusing to agree to not go back through the revolving door when he left his post.”

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, agrees. “Once on the job, he made noises about reforming Pentagon purchasing practices and decisions, but nothing major changed,” he told RS. 

“The U.S. is still embroiled in multiple wars, the Pentagon is still planning to spend $1.7 trillion on a new generation of nuclear weapons, we are still buying unworkable weapons like the F-35, and the size of the military has not been reduced to reflect what should be our new priorities — dealing with pandemics, climate change, a severe economic recession and racial injustice,” Hartung added. 

There are many in the Pentagon community who might disagree with that characterization. In October, the American Enterprise Institute’s Mackenzie Eaglen applauded Esper’s “night court” sessions (QI’s Mark Perry referred to them as “murder boards”) in which the services were ostensibly held accountable for every nickel and dime.

“The savings manifest from these efficiency drills are respectable,” she said. “And no ‘reform’ was considered too small or too controversial by this secretary.”

But as Jeff Groom noted in these pages just two weeks ago, the “savings” Esper gleaned from this heralded project added up to $5 billion, less than one percent of the Pentagon’s annual budget. And none of these savings were to be redirected back to the taxpayer. In fact, Eaglen lauded the idea that money was being moved around in the services “to better implement the National Defense Strategy,” which meant building up for “long-term competition with China,” and paying for Esper’s 500-ship Naval fleet.

So while Esper was viewed as competent in serving as a steward of this ecosystem — including its doctrine of global power projection and a thriving private war industry — he was not the worst of his lot. Just the status quo. For the Blob, that’s typically enough.

“In an ideal world we would not have someone like Esper — a former lobbyist for Raytheon — in the first place,” said Hartung. “He was not an advocate for the real, deep reforms of the Pentagon’s gargantuan budget that are desperately needed.”

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