WASHINGTON — With U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper facing criticism from his boss, Pentagon officials, former defense leaders and outside scholars, there is widespread speculation in Washington that his job security is on shaky ground.
There doesn’t appear to be a decision yet regarding Esper’s fate, but a tumultuous Wednesday, in which he reportedly infuriated President Donald Trump, has raised questions about how long the former Raytheon lobbyist and Army secretary can hold onto the Pentagon’s top job.
Members of Congress moved to bolster Esper’s position in the last 24 hours, with Trump allies Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., showing support for the secretary. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tweeted out a message saying Trump is “very well served” by Esper.
Next week could prove a pivotal one for Esper’s future, as the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., has requested that both the secretary and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appear before his committee.
Esper’s performance in front of the committee, particularly in how he handles skeptical questions from Democrats, may be monitored closely by White House officials — assuming the hearing happens. As of now, Esper has not committed to an appearance, according to Monica Matoush, the HASC spokesperson for the majority.
“Chairman Smith believes it is important for the Committee and the general public to understand Secretary Esper and General Milley’s rationale behind their participation in the events of June 1 in Lafayette Park. While we have not yet received confirmation that they will participate in a public hearing, we remain optimistic that the DoD understands the gravity of this moment,” Matoush said, who added that the committee is considering calling “former senior defense officials” to testify as well.
A senior defense official said on condition of anonymity that the Pentagon is reviewing Smith’s request.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday also sent a letter to Esper, among other administration officials, demanding information on the Monday incident in Lafayette Park outside the White House that kicked off a tumultuous week for the defense secretary.
Should Esper be removed from office, the most likely move would be to have Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist serve as acting secretary. While traditionally the Pentagon is seen as a job that must be quickly filled, Trump has shown a willingness to leaving officials under the “acting” label throughout his administration — including at the Department of Defense, where then-deputy Patrick Shanahan was acting defense secretary for almost six months after the resignation for former Secretary Jim Mattis.
The timing also lines up for Norquist. Under the Vacancies Act, Norquist would be able to fill the spot for up to 210 days. And with 152 days left until the presidential election, leaving Norquist in place would avoid a contentious Senate confirmation process at a time when the legislative body already has only a few work weeks to deal with an already packed schedule.
Expect to see the names of Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; national security adviser Robert O’Brien; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appear as potential contenders. Whether any of those men, or any number of advisers the president has outside of government, would want to put forth their names before the election is unknown. Cotton, in particular, is up for reelection this November and would seem unlikely to bow out of that race before knowing if Trump will have a second term.
72 hours of criticism
It has been quite the week for Esper, starting with Monday evening, when he and Milley appeared next to Trump at a speech at the White House. Trump then walked to a local church for a photo op, a move that led to police gassing and beating peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park, which is located between the White House and the church. Esper later joined Trump as part of the church photo op.
The actions set off a wave of criticism for the defense leaders, including the public resignation of James Miller, a former top defense official, from his role on the Defense Science Board and including a letter from retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the 17th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who blasted Esper’s statement on a call with governors in which the secretary said the government must “dominate” the “battle space.”
A number of current and former defense officials, both civilian and uniformed, expressed dismay to Defense News about the actions. Meanwhile, an informal survey by Military Times found little enthusiasm from members of the military for the use of active-duty troops against protesters.
Tuesday evening, Esper attempted damage control in an interview with NBC News in which he claimed he did not know the church photo op was in the works. By Wednesday morning, Esper held a news conference at the Pentagon podium during which he both attempted to clean up that interview and made his first public statements on the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died nine days ago, setting off nationwide protests.
Former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who was recorded pressing his knee on the handcuffed Floyd’s neck for several minutes, faces a charge of second-degree murder, and three other officers at the scene are accused of aiding and abetting a murder.
Most notably, the secretary laid down a line on the Insurrection Act that seemed to contradict Trump, saying: “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 do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
Esper ended his conference by saying he had to go to the White House, where a frosty reception was already waiting for him. Within an hour of his presser, White House reporters for a number of outlets were reporting that administration staffers were furious with Esper, and they indicated his job was now on thin ice. Bloomberg also reported that Trump directly confronted Esper about his comments.
Asked about Esper’s status later in the day, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany offered a less-than-ringing endorsement: “As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper. And should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future."
The secretary’s status may have played a part in the reversal of a plan to remove active duty troops who had been flown into the D.C. area, but Military Times reports there is no indication they were brought into the district.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told The Associated Press that he received notice of the Pentagon order to send home about 200 soldiers with the 82nd Airborne’s immediate response force just after 10 a.m on Wednesday, around the time Esper was starting his news conference. After Esper attended the White House meeting, those plans were reversed, McCarthy said, adding that he believes the change was based on ensuring there is enough military support in the region to respond to any protest problems if needed.
The final broadside of the day came in the evening, when Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, finally broke his silence about the president in a letter published by The Atlantic.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” Mattis wrote. “Instead he tries to divide us. ... We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
Mattis also offered implicit criticism of Esper, who served as Army secretary while Mattis was in office.
“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Mattis wrote.
Joe Gould in Washington and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.