No, Trump’s Firing of Esper Doesn’t Mean There’s Going to be a Military Coup in the US
President Trump’s unceremonious termination of his defense secretary following a contentious election has rightly raised eyebrows. But it is not, as some have suggested, a precursor for an unconstitutional coup.
In what has become a force of habit for President Donald Trump, he announced the termination of his Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, and the appointment of his replacement, Christopher Miller, by tweet:
“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. Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service.”
Despite the unceremonious and unconventional manner in which his departure was announced, Esper – who had served as the Secretary of Defense since 2019 – had prepared a letter of resignation prior to the November 3 presidential election, eliminating the possibility that his departure was somehow directly linked to that event.
It is known that Esper had recently clashed with President Trump on a number of issues, including the renaming of US Army bases named after officers who had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
The most likely reason behind Esper’s departure, however, is that Trump fired him for a perceived act of disloyalty – the preparation of a resignation letter. John McEntee, the director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, has reportedly informed all current Trump administration employees that they will be fired if it is found out they are looking for employment outside the administration. This move is more than likely designed to reinforce the notion currently promulgated by the White House that President Trump, and not Democratic challenger Joe Biden, has won the presidential election.
Esper’s replacement, Christopher Miller, is a decorated combat veteran who has previously served the Trump administration as the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Counterterrorism and Transnational Threats at the National Security Council, as the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict and most recently the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
His appointment is not without controversy. 10 US Code § 132 requires that the deputy defense secretary assumes the job of secretary of defense “when the secretary dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office.” The current deputy secretary of defense is David Norquist. Moreover, US law (10 US Code § 113) likewise bars anyone from holding the position of secretary of defense who has served as an officer in a regular branch of the armed services in the past seven years; Miller left the Army sometime in 2014.
Esper’s predecessor, James Mattis, had to have President Obama sign special legislation passed by Congress providing for a waiver to 10 US Code § 113 before Mattis could be confirmed by the Senate. Miller has not received such a waiver. The Constitutionality of 10 US Code § 113 has been questioned in some circles, although it is not known if President Trump is relying on such as the basis for his appointment.
Esper’s firing, and the appointment of Miller as his replacement, have been the subject of some wild conspiracies, including one from a former federal prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann.
Weissmann, perhaps best known for his role as the lead prosecutor on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team investigating Donald Trump, is no stranger to conspiratorial controversy. He is, after all, the author of the “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election,” better known as the Mueller Report.
Now an MSNBC contributor, Weissmann tweeted out a new conspiracy theory which built on the firing of Esper as the basis for a “coup” on the part of President Trump, which the former prosecutor spelled out in four parts:
Weissmann’s fanciful theory implies that the US military, which takes its lawful orders from the president of the United States while serving in his capacity as commander in chief, owes its loyalty to a man, and not the constitution to which they are sworn to uphold and defend.
Coming, as it did, on the eve of Veterans Day, such an implication is as insulting as it is just plain wrong. The recent controversy surrounding the deployment of US troops to the capital in the face of massive demonstrations against the president underscores just how seriously the military takes this issue, and for Weissmann to suggest otherwise without offering up anything more than his own biased opinion is unacceptable on any level.
Weissmann also denigrates the man President Trump picked to replace Esper, Christopher Miller. Miller, in addition to his service with the Trump administration, previously served as a commissioned officer in the US Army where, among other accomplishments, he led a joint special operations team tasked with hunting down Osama Bin Laden prior to 9/11, and served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan commanding a variety of special forces units.
To suggest that a man with Miller’s resumé was hand-picked by Trump for the purpose of orchestrating a coup that would violate everything he had spent his life fighting in defense of is an insult not only to Miller, but to any man or woman who ever took the oath, put on the uniform and served his or her country.
Weissmann opines that the Esper firing/Miller hiring episode is “serious” and accuses elected members of the Republican Party of being complicit in this irrational, insulting and dangerous conjecture. The conflation of President Trump’s legitimate right to seek legal redress for allegations of voter fraud with an extra-constitutional coup is the height of absurdity, and should be condemned and rejected by anyone who has ever sworn an oath to the constitution, regardless of where they stand on the state of the presidential election.
Those who have taken the oath know that it is never about the outcome, but always about the process, when it comes to constitutional issues. The US military has a long history of staying out of domestic US politics, and of faithfully following the lawful orders and instructions of whomever the American people elect as their president.
This continues to be the case, and the US people–and indeed the rest of the world–should be able to sift the constitutional wheat of the proper role and function of America’s military forces from the politicized chaff surrounding Esper’s firing.
This reality was recently underscored by a letter written by the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Mark Milley, to members of Congress this past August. “The constitution and laws of the US and the states establish procedures for carrying out elections, and for resolving disputes over the outcome of elections,” Milley wrote. “I do not see the US military as part of this process. In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law US courts and the US congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the US military,” Milley declared, concluding that “I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical US military.”
America, and the world, can take those words to the bank.