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Trump fires Pentagon chief Mark Esper, replaces him with counterterrorism chief

Defense secretary was critical of US president’s plan over summer to use military to quash civil unrest, recently held talks with Israel over F-35 jet sales to UAE

Then-US secretary of defense Mark Esper, with US President Donald Trump, speaks on vaccine development on May 15, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
Then-US secretary of defense Mark Esper, with US President Donald Trump, speaks on vaccine development on May 15, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

US President Donald Trump on Monday announced that he has fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and replaced him with counterterrorism chief Christopher C. Miller.

“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,” tweeted Trump.

“Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service,” he added.

No reason was given for the firing.

National Counterterrorism Center Director Christopher Miller testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. (JOSHUA ROBERTS / POOL / AFP/File)

NBC News last week reported that Esper was preparing a letter of resignation and expected to be pushed out before the inauguration of Joe Biden.

The firing of Esper, who had clashed with Trump over the president’s suggestion of using military personnel to quash civic unrest, comes a week after the US presidential election.

Trump, who is pursuing so far flimsy claims of election fraud in the courts, has only until January 20 before he has to leave office and Biden takes over.

Esper publicly clashed with Trump in June, amid the conflicts over the death of George Floyd, when the defense secretary said that he opposed using American military troops for law enforcement, following the president’s threat to use the Insurrection Act. Esper said the 1807 law should be invoked in the United States “only in the most urgent and dire of situations.” He added, “We are not in one of those situations now.”

Esper also broke with the administration in opposing displays of Confederate symbols at US military installations, according to US media reports.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz shows then-US secretary of defense Mark Esper an Iron Dome missile defense battery at Ben Gurion International Airport on October 29, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Esper had held the office since July 2019.

The Pentagon chief also has a close relationship with Israel, and recently met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz three times, over proposed US arms sales to the United Arab Emirates that sparked concern in Jerusalem.

The two men signed a statement in Washington last month that reaffirmed the American commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, the technical term for military superiority in the Middle East, in light of a proposed sale of American F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE.

A spokesperson for Gantz on Monday said the firing of Esper as US secretary of defense “will not affect” the recent agreement.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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