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Roving Periscope: Trump sacks defense chief, keeps others guessing

Virendra Pandit 

New Delhi: Many had rightly guessed that even if he loses the Presidential election, an unconventional Donald Trump would not easily bow out of power in January 2021. He would first give a spirited fight to his adversary. But few had guessed that he would start doing so by sacking his own Defense Secretary just 70 days before he is himself out of the White House.

Now, this is what in the US is now known as ‘Trumpism’: digging the pitch if you cannot play the match. Since coming to power as the 45th President in January 2017, he sacked hundreds of key officials and continues to do so even 70 days from now, before he becomes the former President.

On Monday, he tweeted to fire his Defense chief, and may also sack the CIA head anytime now, media reports suggested.

Many thought Trump would do something startling. That is why Russia and China have yet to congratulate his successor, President-elect Joe Biden: before greeting the newcomer, they want to make doubly sure that the incumbent is really, really, leaving the White House. They are awaiting the outcome of the court cases the Trump team has filed or is going to file, challenging Biden’s victory.

A day after Biden’s team urged Emily Murphy, the Trump-appointed chief of the General Services Administration (GSA), to approve official transition process for the next administration since the US’ national security and economy depended on it, Trump struck hard: he replaced Defense Secretary Mark Esper with Christopher Miller, who was only recently confirmed as Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

Along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Esper’s had visited India for a key meeting in October with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh in New Delhi as part of the 2+2 dialogue.

Esper’s sacking is being seen by current and former officials with alarm and concern, which could upset an already tumultuous transition to a new administration.

The move came amid tensions Trump had with Esper who had publicly opposed using active-duty U.S. troops to quell protests against racial injustice in June, and his endorsement of renaming military bases that honor Confederate generals.

“Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service,” Trump tweeted. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows informed Esper of his termination before Trump’s tweet!

The move marks another Trump firing by tweet after he removed his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by surprise two years ago while the top diplomat was traveling in Africa.

Veteran Pentagon officials reacted to the sudden news with a mixture of shock and anger.

“It’s unprecedented, it’s absolutely crazy,” said Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense. “There’s no practical reason to do this, except for personal vengeance.”

Now Trump is also said to be considering sacking his CIA chief, Gina Haspel, who fell afoul of the President after she opposed declassifying unverified Russian intelligence that claimed that the Democrats tried to create a scandal about Trump’s ties to Russia ahead of the 2016 elections.

On Friday last, the White House also fired Bonnie Glick, deputy head of the top U.S. foreign aid agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, and appointed her deputy John Barsa in her place as the de facto head.

These steps could have a compounding effect on a possible Biden administration’s flexibility to set its own course on Pentagon policy after Inauguration Day. Trump officials may also be reluctant to aid in a smooth transition to the next administration, for fear of incurring the White House’s wrath.