On November 9th, President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper via a Tweet. Five minutes before, Mr. Esper had been notified by the White House Chief of Staff that he was out. Rampant media speculation was unleashed as to why he was dismissed just 70 days before a presidential inauguration was to take place. Speculation covered the usual gamut: Trump fired Esper for the sheer pleasure of firing someone. Esper was fired because of comments made to governors about dominating the “battlespace” in protests. Esper was fired for disagreeing with the President over invoking the Insurrection Act. Or, finally, that Esper’s banning of Confederate flags on military DOD installations, ships, and housing caused Trump to oust him. All of these were said to be things Trump was gravely offended by and that had Secretary Esper to hang by a bare thread at the Pentagon.

Media Fabrications and Misdirections

Firstly, it appears that the above excuses are media-created disagreements between Esper and the president, and in our view, they would not have resulted in him being fired. In context, Esper’s remarks about governors using National Guard troops to dominate the “battlespace” of violent protests is the description of a best practice in preventing peaceful demonstrations from descending into violence in the first place. His point was that if governors were to deal with that violence swiftly they would lessen the chance of violence spiraling out of control. This is also the reason you see “bouncers” at the doors of clubs and bars. It sends the message to troublemakers that trouble is not welcome. This is what Trump was also telling the governors on that call. The media may not have liked the use of that word but the call was about quelling riots that resulted in injuries, deaths, and property damage, which is a feature of “battles.” And on this, the president and Esper appeared to be on the same page.

Esper’s remarks on not being in favor of invoking the Insurrection Act were not a break from the remarks made by the president about using the U.S. military to quell unchecked riots. President Trump had clearly stated that “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” A fair-minded reader will notice the words “if” and “refuses” in that sentence. If the state authorities refuse to act to ensure public safety then it absolutely falls on the federal authorities to fill the vacuum caused by the dereliction of duty by that local government. That would be the duty of any president in that situation under the Constitution.

The media then went into overdrive writing stories about whether Trump could actually use the U.S. military to quell civil disturbances and published opinion piece after opinion piece focused on whether Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and send in the U.S. military. This is not something that Trump had said he was going to do. Trump said he would be forced to, “if” local authority “refuses” to act to protect public safety. Those are very different things.

Esper then gave a statement about the killing of George Floyd. Among his remarks, he stated that National Guard troops were best suited to deal with disturbances and that the U.S. military would be used only in the direst of circumstances. He added that he did not believe that dire threshold had been met and therefore did not think the Insurrection Act ought to be, or would be invoked. Esper here was not rebuking the president who never said that the invocation of the Insurrection Act was imminent. He was rather rebutting media speculation that President Trump intended to invoke the Act. Simultaneously, the media had made a tortured reading of the president’s tweet disregarding the qualifiers “if” and “refuses.” The media then ran stories saying Esper had broken with Trump who had “repeatedly” threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act and had sent thousands of National Guard and other federal “troops”(law enforcement officers from federal agencies) to quell the riots as proof of his intentions to invoke it. They were forgetting of course that governors command their National Guard units absent a Federal Activation Order and that federal law enforcement officers are not “troops” but law enforcement officers.

The final proof that the media seemed to want to create fights, which did not really exist between Mr. Esper and President Trump, the final example was Esper supposedly banning “Confederate” flags on DOD installations, housing, offices, and ships. The media narrative was that Esper banned the Confederate flag which enraged Trump who is sympathetic to the Confederacy because he and his supporters are racists. But it just didn’t happen that way. The Esper policy directive was not a ban on Confederate imagery but a statement of policy saying what types of flags were permissible excluding any and all that were not specifically permitted by the policy. Permitted flags, would be limited to,

  • Flags of U.S. States and Territories and the District of Columbia
  • Military Service flags
  • Flag officer and general officer flags
  • Presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed civilian flags
  • Senior Executive Service (SES) and Military Department-specific SES flags
  • The POW/MIA flag
  • Flags of allied or partner countries and those used for official protocol purposes
  • NATO flags and those of organizations in which the United States is a member
  • Ceremonial, command, unit, or branch flags or guidons

The approved list excludes by default everything not listed. So, along with the numerous battle flags of the Confederacy, the Star Wars Rebellion Flag and the Gadsen “Don’t Tread On Me” flag would be excluded along with flags that say something as innocuous as, “Eat At Arby’s.”

The purpose of the above is not to defend Secretary Esper or to pretend that his relationship with President Trump was wine and roses. It is to say that the media seemed invested in creating conflicts that may not have really existed or bore on the decision to fire him.