Defense Secretary Mark Esper is on the hot seat with President Donald Trump, sources told Bloomberg.
And, while Trump intends to replace Esper after the election, according to sources, the defense secretary is planning to leave the administration regardless, a source told Bloomberg.
Esper is committed to serving as long as Trump wants him to, per the source who asked not to be identified.
A Reuters source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two men were "not in a good place" but Trump did not intend to move on Esper until voters have rendered their judgment on a second Trump term Nov. 3.
The latest flag was Trump's suggestion the Beirut explosion was an "attack" and the secretary's subsequent appearance on Fox News' "Justice" this weekend saying there was no any immediate intelligence pointing to an attack on the warehouse holding a dangerous pile of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate.
"The bottom line is we still don't know," Esper told Judge Jeanine Pirro. "On the first day, as President Trump rightly said, we thought it might have been an attack. Some of us speculated it could have been a Hezbollah arms shipment that blew up, maybe a Hezbollah bomb-making facility, who knows. Each day we learn.
"[Friday] I commented it was looking more like an accident. It's regrettable that some in the media, not you, but some in the media, rather than taking in consideration this great tragedy that feel upon the [Lebanese] people, are trying to draw divisions within the administration between maybe me, the president, and others."
Trump has been frustrated Esper, who became secretary in July 2019, has not done more to publicly defend him on key issues, including reports Russia paid Taliban fighters "bounties" for the killing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Trump was also angered Esper in June publicly opposed the idea of deploying active-duty military to contain nationwide protests over racism. He confronted his defense secretary June 3 at the White House after Esper held a news conference in which he said that using active-duty military forces to perform law enforcement within the U.S. is "a matter of last resort" and the National Guard was better-suited to the task, people familiar with the matter said.
The pushback from Esper followed Trump's threat to send military forces to cities and states that failed to quell violence from the protests, which were sparked by the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody.
Asked at the time whether the president still had confidence in Esper, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany responded, "should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future."
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Wednesday: "We have no personnel announcements at this time nor would it be appropriate to speculate about changes after the election or in a 2nd term."
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said it is Esper's "highest honor and privilege" to serve the nation.
"He first swore an oath to the Constitution as a West Point cadet over 38 years ago, and has done so many times throughout his adult life, in both war and peace, in uniform and out of uniform," Hoffman said. "He continues that same commitment to duty, honor, and country today, recognizing that he serves the Nation and leads the men and women of this Department as Secretary of Defense at the pleasure of the president."
John McEntee, head of Trump's presidential personnel office, is helping strategize possible changes, people familiar with the matter said.
Before pushing back on deploying troops to cities with large-scale protests, Esper and General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had joined Trump on a walk through a public park in front of the White House on June 1, after it had been cleared of peaceful protesters, a move that provoked a bipartisan outcry in Congress and from former military leaders.
Esper, though, has shown more willingness than his predecessor to work with Trump on issues such as drawing down forces in Syria, Afghanistan, and Germany, sending U.S. troops to the border with Mexico and shifting funding for military construction and weapons programs to help build a border wall.
Since taking office, Esper has also made himself and top officials more available to the media, a practice that had been limited under Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis. Pentagon officials brief reporters on a almost-weekly basis now and, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, addressed reporters multiple times per day on occasion.
Trump has had a tumultuous relationship with military leaders since taking office. Mattis abruptly resigned in December 2018 after the president announced plans to withdraw troops from Syria with little planning. Trump later nominated Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew from consideration in June 2019 after news reports of a messy divorce years earlier surfaced.
More recently, Trump's nominee for the No. 3 job at the Pentagon, Brigadier Gen. Anthony Tata, foundered last month when his confirmation hearing was abruptly canceled and the White House withdrew his nomination. Tata had been dogged by controversy over his past remarks, including derogatory comments about Islam.
Even if he stays in his role until the next presidential inauguration Jan. 20, 2021, Esper would be one of the shortest-tenured secretaries of defense in decades. After Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, combined, served more than 10 years in the role, most Pentagon chiefs have lasted fewer than two years.
President Bill Clinton's first secretary of defense, Les Aspin, served one year and two weeks in the position, the shortest since the Nixon administration. If he departs in November after the election, Esper will have been in the role for about one year and four months.
Information from Bloomberg and Reuters were used in this report.
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