Tensions between President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper continue to erupt publicly, most recently when a Twitter kerfuffle spilled into public view over whether Esper and the Defense Department were supporting cuts of more than $2 billion to the military health care budget.
It began after a report from Politico said that Pentagon officials working on Esper’s cost-cutting review “have proposed slashing military health care by $2.2 billion, a reduction that some defense officials say could effectively gut the Pentagon’s health care system during a nationwide pandemic.”
That led the President to tweet Monday night that “a proposal by Pentagon officials to slash Military Healthcare by $2.2 billion dollars has been firmly and totally rejected by me. We will do nothing to hurt our great Military professionals & heroes as long as I am your President. Thank you!”
A short time later, Esper tweeted that “as we stated yesterday in response to an inaccurate story, I have not directed nor approved any cuts to our military healthcare system in our future budgets. Furthermore, I will not allow any reductions that would harm access to quality medical care for our service members, their families, and our larger DoD community. Our goal remains to ensure a medically fit fighting force and a highly trained and capable military medical cadre.”
The Pentagon press office had already criticized the story, which Politico stands behind.
The Pentagon insists Esper has not proposed cuts or even seen a proposal for that action. But the President’s tweet reinforced the claims that there is some type of Pentagon proposal in the works.
It’s just the most recent example of Trump publicly poking at his fourth defense chief in three-and-a-half years. When asked by a reporter on August 15 if he had confidence in Esper, the President answered “Mark ‘Yesper?’ Did you call him ‘Yesper’?”
It was perhaps an odd dig because the less than flattering moniker has been used by those who believe Esper will always say yes to any of the President’s ideas.
“Some people call him ‘Yesper.’ No, I get along with him. I get along with him fine. He’s fine,” Trump said. When asked pointedly if he is considering firing Esper, Trump said, “I consider firing everybody. At some point – at some point, that’s what happens.”
An aide close to Esper says the secretary has no plans to step down and will continue to serve at the “pleasure of the President.” The official insists the secretary is not concerned about unflattering attention from the President.
“It’s just something that is baked into being a member of the Cabinet,” the official said. “For Esper it’s not an issue.”
Trump may have few options for a new secretary of defense other than waiting to see if he is reelected. For now, if he were to fire Esper, the deputy defense secretary David Norquist would take over as a placeholder until a new secretary could be confirmed, most likely next year.
If he stays on the job, Esper still has months of challenges ahead in dealing with Trump.
One recent point of friction has been the push by Pentagon leaders to rename bases now named after Confederate generals – something Trump has adamantly opposed. Several Defense Department officials privately say they now expect a congressional measure to pass after the election renaming the bases.
Esper’s staff is also still holding onto a key report on the role the military played during June 1 protests in Washington, DC, especially around Lafayette Square where peaceful protestors were cleared so the President could stage a photo op. The report is expected to be made public before the election.
One official familiar with some of the initial findings says overall it endorses the idea that National Guard forces are best suited to support law enforcement in protests. Trump had threatened to deploy active duty forces on to American streets, something Esper opposed unless the situation became dire.
Esper has also come under criticism from some in the White House for saying he hopes to visit China in the coming months, an apparent misstep that means Esper may be required to once again solidify his anti-China credentials with the White House. He is expected to visit the Asian Pacific region where he will speak out about China, as he often has.