On Thursday, Mark Esper will have served exactly one year as secretary of defense but the last few months have been the toughest of his tenure as tensions with the White House have spilled out in public.
With just under six months to go until inauguration day, Esper is walking a political tightrope. Defense officials tell CNN he has had to make time to focus on day-to-day crisis management alongside chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to try and prevent President Donald Trump from making any disastrous decisions that could damage national security or demoralize the military.
A senior defense official says Esper still has achieved several goals aimed at reshaping the department to make troops more readily able to deploy in a crisis but some within the Pentagon believe it’s possible Esper may be put in a similar position to Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, if the President makes a decision he feels he is unable to accept. Mattis resigned when he felt the President made an unacceptable decision by deciding to withdraw troops from Syria.
Some of the decisions Esper could struggle with revolve around Trump’s demand to bring troops home to meet a 2016 campaign promise ahead on November’s election.
By the end of the month, Congress will be briefed on classified Pentagon plans to move nearly 10,000 troops out of Germany – something Trump wants because he says Germany is not spending enough on defense. A defense official told CNN that it’s expected Esper will soften the order to move out, instead rotating troops so there is still a significant wedge against Russian adventurism on Europe’s eastern flank.
Similarly, Trump is threatening to remove troops from South Korea even though North Korea’s Kim Jong Un hasn’t given up his nuclear program. Like Germany, Trump believes South Korea isn’t paying enough for defense so a potential but unlikely drawdown is possible.
Bipartisan members of Congress have already made clear they’d strongly oppose any withdrawal from Germany and any move to draw down in South Korea would be likely to be met with similar opposition because they believe both moves would weaken American national security.
On Tuesday, Esper opened the door to possibly rotating troops in and out of South Korea saying he has “issued no orders” to move forces away from the Korean peninsula but said he would like to “pursue more rotational forces, force deployments in the theaters because it gives us the United States greater strategic flexibility in terms of responding to challenges around the globe.”
Esper did not address decades of intelligence assessments that have always claimed North Korea could strike with little to no warning, leaving the US no time to beef up forces if they are withdrawn.
What Esper isn’t saying is revealing
There may be no bigger hint of the strains at play than what Esper is not saying. When he recorded a 10-minute video for troops largely touting his accomplishments and thanking the force he didn’t mention the commander in chief once.
Esper followed the model of Mattis and didn’t address Trump’s statements undermining allies and instead stated that one of his own priorities is to “develop a coordinated plan to strengthen allies and build partners.”
But even though Esper touts alliances, the damage may already be done. “Every country should be on high alert he will remove troops,” one administration official said of the President’s policies.
Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan also are still on the chopping block and there is still a rising threat from Russia, not just in eastern Europe. Russian military moves into Libya could give Moscow a second toehold in the Mediterranean to challenge the US beyond its bases in Syria.
With just months to the election Esper is still pushing for an overhaul of the Pentagon aimed at countering threats posed by China and Russia, what he calls “our top strategic competitors.” But the White House shows no interest in taking on Russia: dismissing reports of Russian financial support for the Taliban to kill American forces, even as two US military commanders said they were still looking into it all.
The areas of division with Trump are myriad.
Esper effectively banned the Confederate flag from bases and the fact he is still willing to discuss renaing bases that honor Confederate generals has put him at odds with the White House.
Esper approved Lt. Col Alexander Vindman for promotion even after the White House tried to get his name stricken from the promotion list in retribution for his congressional testimony on Ukraine, a defense official with direct knowledge confirmed to CNN.
The last time Esper spoke to Pentagon reporters on June 3 he tersely noted he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act that might have put active duty troops on the streets during the civil unrest sparked following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Trump had threatened to send in active duty troops and Esper’s statement angered the White House. Nothing that has happened since has made either side feel better.
So given the many tensions with the White House, both Esper and Milley have shied away from answering reporter’s questions knowing almost every answer they give is likely to put them at odds with the President.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect that Esper last spoke to Pentagon reporters in June.