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Defense Secretary Mark Esper To Be Replaced By Christopher C. Miller

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The news came in a presidential tweet today. Quote, "Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service." And that's how Donald Trump let the world know that he had fired the secretary of defense. Trump added that Christopher Miller, who currently serves as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will become acting secretary, effective immediately. Joining us with more is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: How much of a surprise is this? It was certainly sudden.

BOWMAN: Oh, it's not a surprise at all. Trump wanted to fire him back in June for opposing the president's insistence to use active-duty troops to deal with street protests in D.C. and elsewhere. Now, active-duty troops did deploy to the Washington area, but the Pentagon had them remain outside the city itself. The president wanted to send a strong message. Esper was quite forceful in saying that was not a good idea. Police and National Guard troops were the best option. Here's Esper talking about it back on June 3, the last time he was in the Pentagon briefing room.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK ESPER: 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.

BOWMAN: So, Ari, that really sealed his fate. Esper had a resignation letter ready to go. And I'm told he updated it in recent days.

SHAPIRO: That was five months ago. Why didn't Trump fire him back then?

BOWMAN: Well, Trump was talked out of it by his advisers and also lawmakers on Capitol Hill saying it didn't look good so close to the election. And, of course, Esper's predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned over disagreements with Trump.

Now, even though there were reports in recent days that Esper would be fired, there were mixed views on whether that actually would happen. Some thought it was likely to happen. Others, especially in the Hill, were worried it would send a message of a government in turmoil. And Esper himself was telling lawmakers just a few days ago that he was not resigning and was expecting to stay for the remaining 2 1/2 months of this administration.

SHAPIRO: Well, what's been the reaction so far today?

BOWMAN: Well, only from Democrats, actually - I haven't seen any reaction from Republicans. And so far, the only reaction from Democrats, again, opposing this move - Congressman Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said it was a childish and reckless move and was destabilizing for the Pentagon ahead of a political transition. The congressman said, in the national security community, it's well-known that periods of presidential transition leave our country exposed to what he called unique threats from adversaries.

And Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Foreign Relations Committee, echoed that - said firing a secretary of defense in the last weeks of a lame-duck presidency serves no purpose and only demonstrates an instability harmful to American national defense - so, again, only Democrats talking about this.

SHAPIRO: Well, Esper only held this job for a little over 16 months. What will he be remembered for? What was his track record?

BOWMAN: Well, there were mixed reviews. He was called Yesper for acquiescing or remaining silent over Trump's more controversial moves, such as troop cuts in Afghanistan and Germany. Also, some Pentagon officials, including Esper, were open to removing the names of Confederate generals from U.S. military bases. Trump strongly opposed it. And Esper, again, was silent.

To some people in Capitol Hill I spoke with - they say he was a strong Army secretary, made steep cuts to some programs he saw as no longer necessary but was a disappointment as defense secretary. Others really were more charitable, saying he did as best he could under trying circumstances, meaning working for Trump. Defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon called him solid and successful for focusing on the new defense strategy that centered on China and Russia, while another analyst, Brad Bowman, praised Esper for pushing modern weaponry like hypersonic missiles and directed energy.

SHAPIRO: And just briefly, why would any president fire somebody as prominent as a defense secretary after losing an election with just a couple months left as a lame-duck president?

BOWMAN: Because we're talking about Trump. And anybody that disagrees with him - he takes that personally and forcefully. And as he said on numerous occasions, I like to fire people.

SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.