President Donald Trump listens during a press briefing about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 15, 2020, in Washington.

President Donald Trump listens during a press briefing about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 15, 2020, in Washington. AP / Alex Brandon

Trump Fires Esper, Taps NCTC Director to be Acting SecDef

Christopher Miller becomes Trump's fourth acting defense secretary just 72 days before Inauguration Day.

Updated: 6:00 p.m. ET

President Donald Trump fired Pentagon chief Mark Esper on Monday afternoon, installing an unprecedented fourth acting defense secretary just 72 days before the expected start of the Biden administration. 

“I am pleased to announce that Christopher C. Miller, the highly respected Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (unanimously confirmed by the Senate), will be Acting Secretary of Defense, effective immediately…” the president tweeted. “...Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”

It was not immediately clear that Miller’s appointment was legal. One possible barrier is 10 U.S. Code § 113, which bars anyone from holding the job who has served as an officer in a regular branch of the armed services in the past seven years; Miller left the Army sometime in 2014. University of Texas law professor Steven Vladeck noted that 10 U.S. Code § 132 requires the deputy defense secretary to step up “when the Secretary dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office.” Pentagon officials declined to answer a reporter’s question about DepSecDef David Norquist’s status on Monday afternoon.

But Miller visited the Pentagon Monday afternoon, removing his mask as he entered the building through the River Entrance traditionally reserved for senior leaders. CNN's Barbara Starr reported that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley convened a meeting of the chiefs and combatant commanders. “Miller's guidance to senior Pentagon staff is there is no change to the mission, no significant changes at this time,” Politico’s Lara Seligman reported, citing an unnamed senior defense official.  

Esper clashed with Trump numerous times this year, especially following the police killing of George Floyd in May. The defense secretary — who walked with Trump to the infamous June photo op in front of St John's Episcopal Church across from the White House — later publicly advocated against using active-duty troops against protests in Washington. Esper has also clashed with Trump over changing the names of U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals. In July, he banned Confederate flags from military bases by ordering a ban all non-military flag displays; he has since been quietly working with Congress to change the names, NBC reported last week.

Trump had intended to fire Esper last week, if he had won the election, one source close to the White House told Defense One. But multiple sources close to the White House in recent days have said that firing Esper amid the chaos of a contested election would be a mistake. Trump, it appears, did not heed that advice.

Esper, in his resignation letter to Trump, said he strived to keep the Pentagon out of politics.

“I serve the country in deference to the Constitution, so I accept your decision to replace me,” Esper wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Fox News. “I step aside knowing there is much we achieved at the Defense Department over the last eighteen months to protect the nation and improve the readiness, capabilities, and professionalism of the joint force, while fundamentally transforming and preparing the military for the future.” Notably, Esper boasted of "keeping the Department out of politics," which was rarely a concern mentioned in previous administrations but has defined the tenures of every defense secretary to serve under Trump. 

Esper became SecDef on July 23, 2019, replacing Patrick Shanahan, the nation’s longest-serving acting defense secretary. Esper had most recently served as secretary of the Army, where he launched a series of “night court” efforts to look for programs to cut and find other savings. In early January, he launched a similar campaign across the Defense Department, sending two memos ordering a search for ways to turn money, people, and effort toward the great power competition enshrined in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. AEI Fellow Mackenzie Eaglen called it the biggest attempt at defense reform in a generation.

Meet the new boss

Miller has served as the seventh director of the National Counterterrorism Center for not quite two months, having been sworn in on Aug. 10. Before that, he served as “performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict” and deputy assistant defense secretary for special operations and combating terrorism.

He served in the Army Special Forces and took part in the initial combat operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, according to his official biography. He left the Army in 2014.

"He is a consummate professional, very competent and dedicated to the nation," said Mick Mulroy, a former CIA officer and Marine who was deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. "He will be handed a very difficult job that I am sure he did not ask for."

Miller takes over at a tumultuous time in Washington. President-elect Joe Biden, who on Saturday was projected to have won last week’s election, on Monday commenced his transition team operations and had received public congratulations from every NATO head of state except for Turkey and Slovenia. Trump has refused to concede and is blocking the customary start of the transition to the new administration. 

"Stability at the Department of Defense during this time of the transition is very important," Mulroy, now an ABC News analyst, said. "Secretary Esper’s leadership in keeping the military out of any domestic political issues and continuity of the chain of command was very critical. Replacing him now was not responsible."

Various Democrats were quick to condemn Esper’s firing. James Stavridis, former U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander Europe, said, “Firing the secretary of defense, Mark Esper, makes no sense at this point. Things are already unstable internationally, and this does not help. We need to try and create stability in transition time — Hopefully opponents will not try and take advantage.”

House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, said in a statement: “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.”

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, tweeted: “This president can still do a lot of damage between now and January. We can’t take our eyes off the ball yet. Secretary Esper deserves our thanks for his service. And our country deserves better than this.”

Acting SecDef No. 4

Miller will be the fourth man to serve as acting secretary during Trump’s four-year term. Since the creation of the defense secretary cabinet position in 1947, there had previously only been two acting secretaries: Bill Clements during the Nixon administration and William H. Taft IV, during the George H.W. Bush administration. 

Jim Mattis served as Trump’s first defense secretary before resigning in December 2018 after opposing Trump's sudden decision to remove all U.S. troops from Syria, which Mattis had considered to be the last straw following a string of policy differences with the president. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and former commander of U.S. Central Command, had intended to stay in the post for several months after submitting his resignation, but Trump dismissed him a few weeks later. 

Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who was Mattis’ deputy, served as acting secretary for nearly six months before withdrawing Trump’s nomination to become secretary after details of a divorce were made public.

Esper, who at the time was Army secretary, took over in an acting capacity. He briefly stepped down while the Senate reviewed his nomination. During that time, then-Navy Secretary Richard Spencer served as acting secretary.

Ben Watson and Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.