Pentagon chief fired via Trump tweet

Sean D. Naylor
·National Security Correspondent
·4 min read

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday became the latest Trump administration official to be fired by presidential tweet.

Trump’s decision to fire Esper was not unexpected. NBC News reported Thursday that Esper, who had upset the president this summer because of his opposition to using active-duty troops to quell the nationwide protests for racial justice, had prepared a resignation letter. However, the identity of Trump’s pick to replace Esper on an acting basis came out of left field.

“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,” Trump tweeted at 12:54 p.m. ET on Monday. “Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”

By naming Miller, a respected former Army Special Forces officer who has held a series of national security positions in the Trump administration, Trump skipped over his own deputy defense secretary, David Norquist. A former Trump national security official suggested that the president might have been suspicious of Norquist’s long career as a national security financial expert.

David Norquist
Defense comptroller David Norquist. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

“He’s a comptroller, he’s an accountant, a manager — a very highly capable and well-respected one,” said the former national security official. “But I think the president doesn’t necessarily want another longtime denizen of the Pentagon in the leadership position, even for just two months.”

Some government experts and former officials immediately raised questions about Miller’s appointment, since federal statute appears to indicate that the deputy defense secretary should take over. However, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act does allow the president to appoint another confirmed official, such as Miller, on an acting basis.

Another unresolved question is how the appointment can be reconciled with the legal requirement that those appointed to the position must have left active military service at least seven years prior. Miller retired in 2014.

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment on why Trump passed over Norquist.

Miller is a retired Special Forces colonel who from March 2018 to December 2019 served as a special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism and transnational threats on the National Security Council. His military career combined multiple tours in the Fifth Special Forces Group — which is based at Fort Campbell, Ky., but is focused on the Middle East — with tours in more secret task forces.

Christopher Miller
Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center and recently appointed acting secretary of defense. (Joshua Roberts/Pool via Reuters)

Two of his Special Forces officer peers had nothing but good things to say about Miller when reached by phone on Monday afternoon.

“He is an exceptional intelligence and national security professional,” said retired Special Forces Col. Mark Mitchell, who was acting assistant director for special operations and low-intensity conflict during the Trump administration and has known Miller for 27 years, serving with him on several occasions. “Underneath his self-effacing humor is a brilliant mind, and he is a true patriot who sacrificed in a lot of ways that will never be brought out in public.”

“He’s awesome,” said retired Special Forces Col. Stu Bradin, who said he’d known Miller for more than 20 years, adding that the new acting defense secretary’s relatively recent combat experience would be an advantage. “He understands the value of human life and putting people in harm’s way because he’s recently done it,” Bradin said. “Trump made a great pick.”

Miller is “all about results” but is also “one of the most candid, transparent and honest people,” Bradin added.

In addition to having a near-photographic memory, Miller will bring tremendous energy to the top job in the Pentagon, according to Bradin. “The guy can go forever,” Bradin said.

Miller might need to draw on all of his skills as he takes the helm at the Defense Department at a time when Trump has refused to acknowledge his loss in last week’s presidential election, even as world leaders congratulate former Vice President Joe Biden for his victory. “He's walking into a pretty chaotic environment, and you couldn’t ask for a better person” in that situation, Bradin said.

Mitchell noted that U.S. forces had killed both Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iranian spymaster Qassem Soleimani during Miller’s tenure as Trump’s special assistant for counterterrorism.

“True to his Special Forces roots, he is not afraid to take calculated risks,” Miller said. “No matter how long he serves, I know he’ll do an excellent job.”

Cover thumbnail photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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