Indeed, Esper has managed the coronavirus crisis with just one active-duty death so far and without broadly halting training or operations. He has carried out improvements to base housing, secured the largest research and development budget in the department’s history and spearheaded a $5.7 billion cost-saving effort. But some of those efforts have been stymied by near-constant global crises and more than a dozen senior-level vacancies, seats the Pentagon has struggled to fill amid the White House’s post-impeachment loyalty purge.
Formerly a little-known defense executive and Trump’s third choice for Army secretary, Esper has also been constantly overshadowed by more outspoken members of the Trump administration. When Esper first took the job, Bolton, the former national security adviser, was seen by many observers in and outside the administration as having the Pentagon under his thumb. After Bolton left it was Pompeo who exerted outsize influence, cutting Esper out of Afghan peace negotiations and blitzing the airwaves after the military strike on Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Even Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has a close relationship with Trump, has at times eclipsed Esper, in one memorable incident cutting the Defense secretary off during a news conference.
Esper’s biggest fault has been his failure to stand up for his people, said Marc Polymeropoulos, who retired from the CIA in 2019. He pointed to Esper’s silence on reports of intelligence that Russia paid bounties to militants for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan — an allegation some top defense officials say is unproven — as well as Vindman’s resignation.
“A key leadership principle is you make a pact as a leader with the people under your command. … At the end of the day, he broke that pact, and that disturbed me profoundly,” Polymeropoulos said. “Where is his sense of outrage?”
Fulfilling the president’s agenda
While at first glance the 56-year-old Esper might not be the most obvious pick for the job of Defense secretary, he has many of the qualities that make him a good fit to lead Trump’s Pentagon. A Gulf War veteran who rose to lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and later worked on Capitol Hill and in the defense industry, Esper is a disciplined and routine-oriented secretary. He works out every day, avoids after-work social activities, and likes to eat breakfast one-on-one with his wife, Leah, during his many international travels. And as a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense, Esper understands the Pentagon bureaucracy and the importance of the civil service.
Unlike his predecessor, Jim Mattis, who slow-rolled many of Trump’s requests, Esper is committed to carrying out the president’s policies and is not “running a separate agenda,” said one former White House official familiar with Esper’s relationship with the White House.
But far from being a “yes man,” Esper knows how to make his voice heard, Punaro said.
“He understands that he’s got to basically maintain a good working relationship with the White House,” Punaro explained. “I know he doesn’t hesitate to give his views, but on the other hand he understands when a decision is made, you’ve got to basically execute.”
Some of the perception of Esper’s weakness stems from the circumstances of his promotion to the job, which came about almost by accident. The department had been without a permanent leader for six months, as Trump left then-acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan in limbo over whether he would get the job. Finally, in May 2019, Trump announced he would nominate Shanahan to the permanent post, but Shanahan suddenly withdrew from consideration just weeks later over reports involving past tensions with his ex-wife and children. In a tweet disclosing Shanahan’s decision on June 18, Trump announced he would nominate Esper for the role instead.
Even before Esper had officially stepped into the acting role, he was forced to confront an international crisis as Trump’s more established deputies jockeyed for influence. Two days after Trump’s announcement, a simmering conflict with Iran erupted when Tehran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone over international waters in the Persian Gulf. As the new guy in the room, Esper tried his best not to step on anyone’s toes. As Shanahan — who was still in the acting job — Pompeo, Bolton and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford debated an appropriate response at a breakfast meeting, Esper remained “largely silent,” Bolton recalled in his recently released memoir. The group ultimately agreed that a retaliatory strike would target three Iranian sites, only to have Trump call off the attack at the last minute.
Esper “started off like anyone starts — in observer mode,” the former White House official said. Hoffman, Esper’s spokesperson, stressed that at the time Esper still had not technically stepped into his new position.
After he officially started the acting job on June 24, Esper’s position within Trump’s cutthroat Cabinet was still precarious. In one glaring example, he was largely cut out of Afghan peace negotiations. Unbeknownst to him, Pompeo’s special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, had begun discussing a peace deal with the Taliban. When Esper discovered the effort on July 1, he called Pompeo to suggest bringing the deal back to Washington for review, according to Bolton, who wrote that Pompeo “screamed” at Esper for getting involved in the negotiations. Hoffman said the contentious exchange did not happen, noting that the two men have been “friends for decades.”
Nonetheless, the Pentagon remained largely cut out of the peace talks even after Bolton departed, said one former senior defense official with firsthand knowledge of the discussions, noting that “the peace process was very much dominated by the State Department and Khalilzad.”
“There was a sense we didn’t have full visibility into the negotiations,” the former official said.
A senior defense official agreed that the State Department had the lead on the peace negotiations, but noted that Esper received regular updates from the team on the ground.
Meanwhile, a national security crisis was brewing that Esper was powerless to stop. Less than three hours before Esper was ceremonially sworn in as Defense secretary on July 25, Trump had hung up the phone with President Volodymyr Zelensky after pressuring his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Joe Biden and his son, allegedly in exchange for military aid to defend against a Russian invasion — money the Pentagon had already approved.
Esper, along with Pompeo and Bolton, repeatedly pressed Trump over the next few months to release his hold on nearly $400 million worth of security assistance to Kyiv before the end of the fiscal year, when the authority to spend it would run out. Their pleas fell on deaf ears until the fall, when Trump released the aid just before the deadline. By that point it was too late to stem the fallout: the incident ultimately prompted Trump’s impeachment.
After Bolton left the White House last September, Esper gradually regained some control over national security decisions with the help of his former counterpart at the Army, Milley, who took over the position of chairman of the Joint Chiefs in December.
For example, early on, Esper ended the apparent practice of Pompeo meeting directly with the four-star officers in charge of the department’s combatant commands.
“He took back control of the Pentagon,” said the former White House official. Now “the team of him and Milley are very much calling the shots.”
But despite their best efforts, the Esper-Milley team failed to prevent several disastrous Trump foreign policy decisions, perhaps most notably a crisis in Syria. During a phone call with Trump last October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked the president to move U.S. troops out of the way of a Turkish military operation across the border. The move cleared the way for Erdogan to launch a bloody invasion that killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians. Esper and Milley have said publicly that once they knew Erdogan’s troops were crossing the border, they both advised the president to move U.S. forces out of their way.
Esper strongly defended Trump’s decision in public, claiming he was prioritizing the safety of American troops and that the United States would not have been able to deter Turkey from invading. Esper seemed to throw America’s Kurdish allies under the bus, noting on CBS that although the Kurdish fighters have been “very good partners” in the fight against the Islamic State, “we didn’t sign up to fight the Turks on their behalf.”
“We did not want to get involved in a conflict that dates back nearly 200 years between the Turks and the Kurds and get involved in yet another war in the Middle East,” Esper said.
Esper’s talking points mirrored Trump’s, and seemed scripted by the White House, and deliberately misleading, to boot: Few analysts believed Turkey would have invaded Kurdish territory had Trump not removed the troops.
Behind the scenes, however, Esper helped to prevent a full U.S. withdrawal from Syria, eventually convincing Trump that he should leave a few hundred U.S. troops there to continue the fight against ISIS and protect the region’s rich oil fields, Polymeropoulos said. But the abandonment of the Syrian Kurds “upset a lot of us,” he said.
“Where was Esper?” he said.
Throughout the fall and winter that followed, Esper was overshadowed by Pompeo, who maintained unusually high visibility on military issues for a leader of the State Department, particularly when it came to Iran.
“There was some frustration from DOD that the State Department was trying to own defense operations,” the former White House official said, pointing to Pompeo’s string of TV appearances after the strike on Soleimani in January. “When it comes to military operations, that’s squarely in the realm of DOD, but Pompeo does five Sunday shows.”
The senior defense official pushed back on the idea that Esper was frustrated by Pompeo’s media blitz after the Soleimani strike, noting that the secretary of State’s TV appearances were “a deliberate effort by the administration to make sure that we were showing a diplomatic face and to encourage deescalation.”
During this tense time, Esper showed some willingness to distance himself from the president publicly. Days after the Soleimani strike, he ruled out military attacks on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict with Tehran continued to escalate, despite Trump’s threat to target them.
Meanwhile, the White House was perturbed by Esper’s at times “loose” messaging in press appearances, particularly a January interview after the strike on Soleimani. During the interview, Esper told NPR that the U.S. does not have the authority to attack proxy groups in Iran as retaliation for their actions in Iraq under the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks.
After the interview concluded, Esper requested a follow-on meeting to clarify his remarks, offering that the administration actually does have that authority under Article 2 of the Constitution, the commander in chief’s authority to defend the nation.
“He’s made some communication errors during some critical times, and the president values good communications,” the former official said. “One of the things that you don’t do is get out in front of the president on any major piece of news, and he’s fallen into that trap a couple times.”
It didn’t help that Esper was frequently in the crosshairs of Trump’s new national security adviser, Robert O’Brien. O’Brien has expressed an interest in defense and military issues, particularly procurement issues, that make Esper “very uncomfortable,” said one administration official.
Esper believes O’Brien is angling for his job, the official said.
Looking toward the Pacific
Inside the Pentagon, Esper has fared better. When Esper first started the job, he injected some structure into a department that was hard-hit by Mattis’ resignation and the subsequent exodus of senior officials loyal to him. Esper instituted weekly Monday meetings that brought together all of the Pentagon’s military and civilian leaders to touch base on the week’s events. He made a point of listening to civilian Pentagon leaders, who complained of being overshadowed by the generals under Mattis.
Esper made clear from the start that his top priority in his first year was carrying out the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s pivot from counterterrorism to competition with China and Russia, dedicating each Monday afternoon to that topic. In September, he directed a “sprint” on Russia, in which department leaders looked at “every facet of competition” with Moscow for three or four weeks in a row, said the senior defense official.
Competition with China remains Esper’s primary focus. Esper often talks about how he and fellow Army junior officers could rattle off facts about the Soviet Union’s military capabilities and identify on sight different Russian tanks and carriers, suggesting that’s the level of intensity needed to address the challenges posed by China.
“They studied constantly the Soviet way of war,” the senior defense official said. Esper now believes “that’s the type of culture the U.S. military needs to have vis-a-vis China.”
Esper can point to several concrete achievements in reorienting the department toward the Pacific, including directing National Defense University to rewrite its curriculum to focus on China. He also created and filled a new deputy assistant secretary of Defense for China. And Esper convened senior leadership sessions about China, bringing together members of the Joint Staff, the services and the combatant commanders to discuss the issue.
Esper has also initiated a review of the military’s footprint across the globe, including in Europe, to determine whether resources could be better allocated to support the National Defense Strategy. Although no final decisions have been made, the review is roughly half complete, said the senior defense official.
Another of Esper’s priorities is finding cost savings in the department’s vast budget. The Defense secretary spent more than an hour each week reviewing the budgets of the department’s 27 “fourth estate” support agencies for opportunities to cut costs. Esper announced in December the review had yielded more than $5 billion in savings.
A pattern of delegating authority
But to some inside the Pentagon, the cuts seemed rushed and arbitrary, and further eroded morale.
“It was very poorly run. It was kind of this break to make a splash,” said a second senior defense official familiar with the review, noting it ultimately didn’t find much excess spending, so in the end “the final cut decisions to meet this $5 billion goal that he had were made after the fact and in a closed-door room.”
The first senior defense official noted that the review was done quickly because Esper wasn’t confirmed until the end of July and the process had to be complete before the next budget was submitted, a deadline that was just months away.
“He was beholden to the calendar and he was determined not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” the official said.
But two defense officials, who requested anonymity to protect their jobs, criticized Esper’s overall management of the department. Esper often delegates issues he doesn’t take a personal interest in to his deputy, David Norquist, who many officials believe is overwhelmed by the tasks given to him, said one senior Pentagon official.
“Secretary Esper has certain issues he is passionate about, particularly anything military related, and he is closely involved in those things. Then there are other issues where you cannot connect with him at all because you are left to follow up with his staff,” the official said. “I have heard several principals in OSD say ‘I didn’t come here to report to his staff.’”
Hoffman, Esper’s spokesperson, defended the Defense secretary’s record, noting that to confront challenges in such a vast organization “you have to delegate some tasks to highly capable subordinates.” He added that Esper has tackled “budget, process and staffing challenges alike — and quickly.”