In an exclusive interview with Military Times that dropped shortly after his abrupt firing, Mr Esper took exception with critics who have called him a “yes man”, the source of the derogatory nickname “Yesper” used by the president.
“Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back… Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?” Mr Esper said.
“At the end of the day, it’s as I said — you’ve got to pick your fights… I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that —why? Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”
The interview was conducted on 4 November, before Mr Esper’s replacement would have been known.
Mr Trump revealed Mr Esper’s dismissal in a tweet announcing an immediate replacement, the Director of National Counterterrorism Centre, Christopher C Miller.
“Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service,” Mr Trump said.
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It comes after weeks of speculation that Mr Esper was among several high-ranking officials facing the axe regardless of whether Mr Trump won or lost the election, including FBI director Christopher Wray and CIA director Gina Haspel.
Mr Esper had already prepared a resignation letter in anticipation of his leaving the role after long being at odds with Mr Trump on issues like using the military to quell protests over the summer, according to NBC News.
The firing comes as Mr Trump continues to contest the results of the presidential election, preparing to file lawsuits and take his claims of voter fraud on the road with a campaign-style rally tour across key states where he’ll be demanding recounts.
While cracks in the relationship between the two were discussed privately for some time, they became openly public after Mr Esper refused to support the president’s suggestion in June that they could invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops in response to riots across the country.
“I say this not only as secretary of Defense, but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard, 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 situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” Mr Esper said at the time.
In response, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said only the president had the authority to determine if the Insurrection Act would be invoked.
“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,” Ms McEnany said at the time.
Mr Esper became defence secretary in July 2019 after acting secretary Pat Shanahan withdrew from consideration. Mr Trump’s first defence secretary, Jim Mattis, resigned in 2018 over the withdrawal of US troops in Syria.
At a press conference in August, Mr Trump referred to him as Mark “Yesper” as he alluded to a possible termination.
“Mark Yesper? Did you call him Yesper?” Trump said. “I consider firing everybody. At some point, that’s what happens.”
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