Defense Secretary planning an exit, aiding renaming of military bases

U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark T. Esper visits a missile alert facility near Minot Air Force Base, N.D., in February 2020. Esper, a 1986 U.S. Military Academy graduate, has served as Secretary of Defense since July 23, 2019.Prior to his current position, he served as Secretary of the Army from Nov. 20, 2017, to June 24, 2019.He previously served on active duty in the U.S. Army, and in the National Guard and Army Reserve. As part of the 101st Airborne Division, he took part in the 1990-1991 Gulf War. (Air Force photograph by Senior Airman Ashley Boster)

by Stuart Ibberson, editor
Several news outlets have, over the past day, reported that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is planning his exit from the top job at the Pentagon, and has already prepared his letter of resignation.

Precedent shows us that it is normal for cabinet secretaries to prepare resignation letters following an election, allowing the commander in chief to reorganize his cabinet during a second term.

NBC reports that several senior defense officials say Esper prepared his letter because he has been expecting Donald Trump to push him out after the election.

Esper has been at odds with Trump since the summer when he pushed back against the president’s plan to use active duty troops to squash protests around the United States.

It also appears that Esper is working with lawmakers to include language in the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act to strip the names of Confederate leaders from military bases — an issue that puts him at further odds with President Trump.

Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, appeared to push back on the reporting.

“The speculation about potential resignations of Cabinet officials is a well-worn, D.C.-insider, post-election parlor game,” Hoffman said. “[Secretary Esper] continues to serve the nation as the secretary of defense at the pleasure of the president and is at the Pentagon today working on the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy.”

“As is normal and expected, the department works with Congress to provide the administration’s concerns and views regarding proposed defense-related legislation — particularly when House and Senate versions of defense bills are being reconciled and finalized. This does not indicate support for previously proposed legislative language. Out of respect for the members of Congress who have sought technical assistance in good faith, we generally do not discuss these efforts.”

Hoffman pushed back further on Twitter, when he stated, “The NBC story is inaccurate and misleading in many ways. To be clear, Secretary of Defense Esper has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation. He continues to serve the nation as Secretary of Defense as the pleasure of the President…” The Hoffman tweet came at 5:37 p.m., EST, Nov. 5.

Politico reports that former DOD officials and military experts say it’s important “for Esper to remain in his job as a tense America awaits the results of the vote counts in battleground states, in no small part to reassure citizens that the military will play no role in the transition of power.”

“Secretary Esper is a person of sound character. President Trump has made it nearly impossible for respected public servants like Secretary [Jim] Mattis and Secretary Esper to lead the DOD,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement. “For the good of our country and the brave men and women in uniform, I hope he will continue to serve for the remainder of the Trump presidency.”

“This is a matter of national security,” said Arnold Punaro, former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee and a retired Marine Corps major general. “During the next 76 days, our allies and adversaries should understand that President Trump retains full powers as commander in chief and the chain of command is intact from him to Secretary Esper to the warfighting commanders.”

Regarding the renaming of military bases, Esper considered issuing a directive ordering the military secretaries to change the names within their respective services, but such an order could be overturned by Trump who has been adamant in his position that the base’s names should not be changed.

Esper has decided to work with Congress so the name changes will be written into law.

The secretary, this week, provided a written framework for renaming installations, and possibly also ships and street names on bases that honor Confederate generals or leaders, officials said. The NDAA, which provides the military budget and policy priorities, is expected to be passed in the coming weeks during the lame duck session of Congress.

The framework suggests that the NDAA could say that military installations cannot be named after someone who has betrayed the U.S. or committed a felony, and instead must be named after people who have met certain criteria, like having earned a Medal of Honor or Silver Star, or achieving the rank of general.

The name changes would affect 10 Army installations, Fort Benning, Ga., Fort Lee, Va., Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Hood, Texas, Fort Polk, La., Fort Gordon, Ga., Fort Pickett, Va., Fort A.P. Hill, Va., Fort Rucker, Ala., and Camp Beauregard, La. Approximately half the bases were established during World War I, and the others during the buildup to World War II.

There are currently two U.S. Navy ships that have ties to the Confederacy: USS Chancellorsville, and USNS Maury.

Chancellorsville is named for the Civil War battle at Chancellorsville in Virginia, which is considered a victory for the Confederate States Army. Chancellorsville is a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser.

The USNS Maury is a Pathfinder-class oceanographic survey ship. Maury is named after Cmdr. Matthew Fontaine Maury, known as the “Father of Modern Oceanography” who famously resigned from the U.S. Navy to sail for the Confederacy.

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