President Donald Trump is unhappy with Pentagon chief Mark Esper. Aides are gossiping about who could replace him. Yet the embattled Defense secretary may be on his way to a more Trumpian punishment: sidelined within the administration.
Esper’s future is in question after he opposed Trump on Wednesday over the president’s call to deploy active-duty troops to quash protests taking part throughout the U.S. In the 24 hours since Esper spoke out, he has met with the president at the White House and has received tepid-at-best endorsements from Trump’s team.
But instead of being shown an early exit, one person in the administration said, Esper could just face an icing out. It’s a fate that has befallen numerous aides and Cabinet secretaries who cross Trump, from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, to every former chief of staff. Weeks or months before each aide actually departed the administration, Trump simply cut them out of key decisions after growing frustrated with them.
Sidelining advisers who disagree with him is Trump’s “M.O.” said Guy Snodgrass, who was chief speechwriter for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. “It sometimes happens just because President Trump wants that individual to feel that that’s an untenable position and they should depart on their own as opposed to him firing them.”
The White House has notably not jumped to Esper’s defense in the past day. When asked on Thursday whether Trump had lost confidence in the Defense secretary, White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley was noncommittal.
“As you know, when the president loses confidence — if he loses confidence — you’ll know that,” Gidley said.
It was the second time in as many days that a White House spokesperson declined to go to bat for Esper. When asked by reporters on Wednesday if Trump still had confidence in his Pentagon chief, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “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 White House offered no further comment.
Esper may not be on his way out the door just yet, but the reasons are largely logistical. The election is only five months away, so it’s unlikely the administration wants to try to push a new Cabinet nominee through the Senate. Meanwhile, the optics of firing the Defense secretary amid the dual crises of a public health emergency and nationwide civil unrest are not ideal.
However, an administration official and two people close to the White House say staffers in recent days have pulled together a list of possible candidates for Defense secretary if Trump does choose to fire Esper. At the top of that list is Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who was Esper’s No. 2 before taking the Army job last summer, the people said. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an outspoken Trump ally who has previously been considered for the position, is also in the mix, according to one of the people.
Esper’s supporters are not going down without a fight. Two people who have known Esper since his time at West Point — David Urban, a former senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have urged the president to keep their former classmate at the helm of the Pentagon, according to two people close to the White House. Republican senators, too, have appealed to Trump not to fire the Defense chief.
“He’s doing a good job,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who spoke to the president recently and doesn’t think Esper’s job is on the line. “There’s no reason to let him go. That’s all just a bunch of chatter. I have confidence in Secretary Esper.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday gave Esper a boost on the president’s favorite platform, Twitter, praising his “dedicated work” and “steadfast commitment to their constitutional duties to preserve peace and order, uphold liberty, and protect the American people so they can freely exercise their rights.”
Republicans on the Hill also fear the political headache of trying to rush a high-profile Defense Department nominee through the Senate in a fraught political moment and a heated election.
One administration official and another person close to the White House said McCarthy could be next in line if Esper does flame out. McCarthy is another member of the so-called “Army mafia” that has risen to power during Trump’s tenure, along with Urban, Pompeo, Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Army chief of staff Gen. James McConville.
McCarthy is not only well-connected in Washington but is also a former Army Ranger — he served in the 75th Ranger Regiment during the invasion of Afghanistan. He later served in the Pentagon as special assistant to former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. McCarthy also worked on what is now the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and as a vice president at defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
As Army secretary, McCarthy spearheaded a campaign to modernize the force and efforts to meet recruiting goals. In the last few months, he has been one of the faces of the Pentagon’s Covid-19 response, appearing multiple times in the Pentagon briefing room to discuss changes to Army training, testing on Army facilities and Army researchers’ efforts to develop a vaccine.
Meanwhile, Cotton drew a sharp contrast with Esper on Wednesday after the Defense secretary declared his opposition to deploying active-duty military units to deal with protesters. Cotton made a splash on Wednesday with an op-ed in The New York Times calling on the president to invoke the Insurrection Act to call in troops.
A Harvard-educated attorney and former Army captain with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Cotton is close to Trump and an outspoken Republican hawk who has been a consistent hardliner on Iran and China. But Cotton is running unopposed for reelection in November, and has an influential voice in the Senate. It’s considered unlikely he would take a Cabinet position and give up his seat so close to the election.
Even as one of the youngest senators on Capitol Hill, Cotton’s military experience and trust of the president has repeatedly put him in the running for top positions in Trump’s administration. A person close to Cotton told POLITICO he’s focused on running for reelection this fall and he would only consider serving in Trump’s Cabinet in a potential second term.
When asked about the Insurrection Act and chatter in Washington that Esper might be out of a job, Cotton would only comment that the use of the law is up to the president.
“Ultimately that’s not a decision for the secretary of Defense to make, it’s not a decision for a senator to make, it is a decision for the president to make,” Cotton said on Fox News.
As always, Trump could change his mind at any minute. But at least two White House aides believe that Esper, while on shaky ground, will likely keep his job for now.
“I don’t think any change is going to happen unless Esper opens his mouth up again [before] the election,” said a Republican close to the White House. But the person noted that Trump didn’t like Esper’s comments on Wednesday.
“He doesn’t want to send troops,” the person said of Trump. “This is a classic Trump negotiating thing and he just wants to threaten these governors and mayors. He doesn’t want somebody undercutting his negotiating position. That’s his problem with Esper.”
A former senior White House official compared Esper’s situation to what happened in February when Attorney General William Barr publicly urged Trump to stop tweeting about the Justice Department, saying it made his job “impossible.”
“In Esper’s case, [his point was] this is not legal,” the former official said. “If everything stays hunky dory for the next week and nothing happens, Esper will be fine.”
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