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The National Security Implications Of Trump's Firing Of Esper


A presidential transition is a long and complicated process. While it's happening, though, the daily work of government has to continue. People have to keep doing their jobs, but not Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. President Trump fired him yesterday on Twitter. NPR's Tom Bowman and Greg Myre have been looking into the national security implications of this. Good morning to you both.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Tom, was it a surprise that Mr. Esper got fired?

BOWMAN: No, this was long expected. Trump wanted to fire him back in June for opposing the president's insistence to use active duty troops to deal with street protests in D.C. and elsewhere. Now, active duty troops did deploy to the Washington area, but the Pentagon had them remain outside the city itself. The president wanted to send a strong message, but Esper was quite forceful in saying this was not a good idea. Police and National Guard troops were the best option, he was saying. Here's Esper back on June 3 in the Pentagon briefing room.


MARK ESPER: The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.

BOWMAN: And that really sealed his fate. Esper had a resignation letter ready to go.

KING: Why, then, didn't President Trump fire him weeks ago?

BOWMAN: Well, Trump was talked out of it by his advisers, as well as lawmakers on Capitol Hill, saying it didn't look good so close to the election. And, of course, Esper's predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned over disagreements with Trump. Now, even though there were reports in recent days that Esper would be fired, there were actually mixed views on whether that would actually happen. Some thought it would; others, especially on the Hill, were worried it would send a message of a government in turmoil. And Esper was telling lawmakers just a few days ago, Noel, that he was not resigning and was expecting to stay for the remaining 2 1/2 months of the administration.

KING: So what does this mean for the military over the last, say - I guess it's 70 days now of the Trump administration left?

BOWMAN: Well, the termination of Esper was highly unusual. The tradition has been to leave key people in place until another administration takes over. And, Noel, there's really no precedent for firing a defense secretary during a transition. Now, the newly named acting defense secretary, Chris Miller, who was a head of the National Counterterrorism Center, showed up at the Pentagon shortly after Esper was fired by tweet, and he was being read in on Pentagon issues and operations. And, of course, it's important to remember the military still has a lot on its plate, troops still present in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and many other volatile places. And that's one of the reasons Democrats on the Hill are really concerned. An adversary could take advantage when you fire a defense secretary and this replacement has to be quickly - get up to speed. It's important to note Miller worked at the Pentagon earlier this year but just for less than three months and on special operations issues.

KING: OK. Thanks, Tom. Greg Myre, let me ask you to pull back and look at this from 10,000 feet in the air. What does this firing mean broadly for the national security community as a whole?

MYRE: Well, it makes clear that Trump is still prepared to take disruptive actions in his final days. It also raises the prospect he could fire other senior national security officials. We'll certainly be watching Chris Wray at the FBI, Gina Haspel at CIA, to see if anything happens in either of those places. And the world doesn't take a timeout during a U.S. presidential transition. The U.S. is trying to negotiate with the Taliban on a peace deal in Afghanistan. The Trump administration has been sending confusing signals about troop levels there. So all of this can be very confusing for U.S. allies and, as Tom mentioned, perhaps an opportunity for U.S. adversaries.

KING: I mean, as you've both been noting, this is not a normal presidential transition. But if it were, what ideally should be happening right now?

MYRE: Well, you certainly want a very smooth transition because you have so many people coming and going at so many different bureaucracies. There are 17 separate U.S. intelligence agencies, for example. And one key part of this is for the intelligence agencies to provide the same daily briefing that they're giving to the current president. This is known as the president's daily brief or the PDB. And I spoke about this with David Priess. He's a former CIA officer who wrote a book on presidential briefings called "The President's Book Of Secrets."

DAVID PRIESS: We've had the solid tradition since the 1960s, when the president's daily brief was first created, that the sitting president, who is still receiving the PDB as the commander in chief through the transition, has offered it to the incoming president.

MYRE: Now, these briefings haven't begun yet for President-elect Biden, and it's part of a larger issue concerning the transition. The government has to authorize that Biden and his team can start receiving government resources across the board and this hasn't happened yet, including the intelligence briefings.

KING: Greg, out of interest, when a president is no longer in office, does he still get these classified intelligence briefings. Like, will President Trump get them after he's out?

MYRE: Well, a president does get a lot of things - Secret Service protection, staff and office. But a former president isn't legally entitled to an intelligence briefings. Now, by tradition, current presidents have extended this courtesy. But if a President Trump wanted to go abroad after he leaves office and he wants a briefing, that briefing would be entirely up to a President Biden.

KING: OK. NPR's Greg Myre and Tom Bowman, thank you to both of you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.