On Monday, soon to be ex-president Trump fired his Defense Secretary, Mark Esper in what the Republicans believe to be the first of several leadership changes during the remaining two months of his administration.
The president also indicated to allies that two top officials on his intelligence team are on the chopping block: FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
Trump and some congressional GOP members have publicly and often complained about the two officials, saying that they were not cooperative in pursuing unproven allegations that the Obama administration illegally spied on the Trump campaign, or in Wray’s case, allegations about Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
FBI directors are typically appointed for 10-year terms, meaning Wray could stay on the job until 2027 if he is not ousted. Haspel was appointed as leader of the CIA in 2018.
National security experts are deeply worried about the loss of Esper and questions about whether the acting secretary will be in over his head. They’re also unnerved by the potential for disruption at the FBI and CIA during a presidential transition.
“Esper seems like only the beginning, this is going to go on until noon on January. 20 so God help us all,” said Dov Zakheim, former foreign policy adviser and undersecretary of Defense for George W. Bush.
One administration official predicted that Trump’s anger could extend to public health agencies, whose leaders have at times undercut or broken with the president in giving guidance to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Trump could target Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, the official said.
The president publicly mused at a rally this month about firing Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases. But Fauci is not a political appointee and thus can’t be fired directly by Trump.
The purge could extend to lower level White House staffers in the coming days and weeks. John McEntee, the head of the Presidential Personnel Office, reportedly warned that staff who are discovered to be looking for other jobs will be fired.
One administration source said that some agencies had not received such word from the White House and instead learned of it from the press, and remarked that it was a sign McEntee was concerned about people leaving.
The threat puts White House staff in a difficult position, as Joe Biden has been projected as president-elect and will take office in January, but Trump has refused to concede.
The lame duck president’s family and allies have expressed frustration at GOP members they believe have been insufficiently loyal in the days after the election, firing warning shots at those who haven’t been vocal enough about the need for investigations into election fraud that would back up the president’s unsubstantiated claim that the election was stolen from him.
Widespread firings could also complicate the period between the election and when Biden takes office.
“Joe Biden is President-elect, and it’s past time for Republican leaders to step up and explain that reality to President Trump before he takes further rash and attention-seeking acts that damage America,” said Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee and a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Democratic leaders also expressed alarm over what they view as the president creating a power vacuum in the national security space that could linger for two months until Biden is sworn in in January.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Trump of seeking to “sow chaos” in the U.S. and around the world in his final days in office.
“The timing of this dismissal raises serious questions about Trump’s planned actions for the final days of his Administration,” Pelosi said. “Again and again, Trump’s recklessness endangers our national security. It is disturbing and dangerous that, at this precarious moment, our military will now be led by an official who has not been confirmed for this position by the Senate.”
Biden’s campaign and transition team declined to comment.
Some Republicans have suggested the move to fire Esper is not only to let off steam, but also to flex his power and authority after the race was called for Biden just two days earlier.
There is also a theme among the officials who Trump is considering ousting: They have pushed back against a president who demands loyalty above all else.
Trump and Esper’s relationship took a turn for the worst over the summer when the president almost fired Esper after his Defense chief publicly voiced opposition to the idea of using active-duty troops to deal with civil unrest.
Esper in an interview with the Military Times acknowledged tensions with the White House over “a series of crises and conflicts,” while dismissing criticism that he is a “yes man” — or as his critics dubbed him, “Yesper.”
“My frustration is I sit here and say, ‘Hm, 18 Cabinet members. Who’s pushed back more than anybody?’ Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back,” Esper told the Military Times on Wednesday. “Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’”
Defense experts are worried that acting Secretary Christopher Miller will be in over his head.
“If Trump is going to pursue a scorched Earth strategy, will the acting secretary stand up to him? I think the answer is probably not,” Zakheim said.
Trump has similarly soured on Wray and Haspel for their opposition to political matters that the president has publicly pushed.
Trump and his allies have become increasingly frustrated that Wray would not meet the president’s calls for the launch of a formal investigation to examine the business dealings of Hunter Biden, or his resistance to firing officials tied to the 2016 Russia probe that Trump has alleged have acted improperly.
While the president and his allies have been distrustful of Haspel for a long time, Trump’s frustration with his CIA chief reportedly began to bubble over after Haspel and other intelligence officials opposed the decision by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe to declassify documents related to the probe into the origins of the Russia investigation led by the Department of Justice’s John Durham.
It was reported in October that Haspel opposed the release of such material, citing concerns that the public disclosure would risk revealing the intelligence community’s methods of obtaining such information.
Still, while their refusal to get mixed up with politics may have led to the deterioration of their relationship with Trump, it may also endear them with Democrats.
Some House Democrats have indicated that they are open to the idea of Wray staying in his post when Biden takes office, but in the meantime, Democrats are warning the Trump administration not to fire more officials, saying that doing so further exposes the U.S. to threats posed by foreign adversaries.
“I’m deeply troubled by President Trump’s firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper just 72 days before a new president will be inaugurated and during a growing global pandemic,” said Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “President Trump must not invite further volatility by removing any Senate-confirmed intelligence or national security officials during his time left in office.”