WASHINGTON – Signals that Defense Secretary Mark Esper's tenure at the Pentagon could be cut short have intensified after a long, hot summer of clashes with President Donald Trump, according to Capitol Hill and administration officials.
The latest conflict involved the assessment over the cause of the devastating blast in Lebanon that left Trump seething. Shortly after the explosion, Trump blamed it on an attack, citing briefings from “generals” whom neither the administration nor the Pentagon would identify. The following day Esper contradicted Trump at a security forum, saying all indications pointed to an accident triggering the explosion.
That contradiction increased friction between the White House and Pentagon, according to a Capitol Hill aide speaking on condition of anonymity.
Bloomberg reported Wednesday that Trump intended to replace Esper after the election, and that Esper planned to resign at that point, too.
White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere issued a statement saying the White House had no announcements on personnel changes.
Fact check: No evidence Beirut blast was an Israeli attack
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement it was Esper's "highest honor and privilege to serve the Nation in defense of our great country."
Esper, according to a source close to him but not authorized to speak publicly, said he is committed to serving as long as Trump wants him to.
Adding fuel to the speculation was Trump’s appointment last week of a controversial retired general to a Pentagon post from which he could be tapped to replace Esper.
Their difference over the cause of the explosion in Lebanon is the latest in a series of friction points between Trump and Esper, dating to the administration’s response to protests across the country after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
The relationship between Trump and Esper began unraveling quickly this summer.
After protesters started marching in cities across the country, including Washington, D.C., following the killing of Floyd, Trump urged a crackdown using the U.S. military.
Esper referred to American streets as "battle space" that governors needed to dominate, a phrase he later said he regretted. But he resisted invoking the Insurrection Act that would have allowed active-duty troops, some poised in June on the outskirts of Washington, to quell disturbances.
Esper was placed in a bind. Trump had sought a forceful response, but senior military officers resisted deploying troops, saying they should be used only as a last resort, a senior officer told USA TODAY on condition of anonymity.
Esper breaks with Trump: 'I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act'
When asked June 3 if Trump had lost confidence in Esper over that, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters "you all will be the first to know" if Trump loses confidence.
"As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper," she said.
Trump and Esper also differed over removal of the names of Confederate generals from military bases and the display of emblems celebrating the Confederacy.
Trump has been pushing for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and from bases located in Germany and South Korea, longtime allies. On July 29, Esper announced that 11,000 U.S. troops would be leaving Germany, relocating to U.S. and Italian bases.
Esper had portrayed the move as a strategic move that afforded the Pentagon greater flexibility in confronting adversaries such as Russia and China. Trump demolished that explanation within an hour, telling reporters that Germany was "delinquent" in its payments to NATO.
The appointment of retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata to a post at the Pentagon last week appears to have provided Trump with a candidate to replace Esper.
Tata, whose nomination for the No. 3 post at the Pentagon appeared doomed with opposition from Republican and Democratic senators, withdrew his name for the nomination. Soon after, he was appointed to a post on an acting basis, which could qualify him as a replacement for Esper, according to a legal expert.
Esper, 56, became Defense Secretary in 2019 after his predecessor, Patrick Shanahan, resigned following a report by USA TODAY about his turbulent family life.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump sours on Defense Secretary Mark Esper after clash on Lebanon