WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has long been unhappy with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and White House officials have talked to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie about taking the top Pentagon job should Trump decide to fire Esper, three senior administration officials said.
Two senior administration officials said Trump discussed the position directly with Wilkie at the White House last month. Two other senior administration officials said Wilkie had senior-level discussions with the White House about becoming Trump’s next defense secretary.
The conversations included the idea of naming Wilkie — a Senate-confirmed member of Trump’s Cabinet — the acting defense secretary if the president fires Esper, officials said.
Wilkie was one of several possible replacements for Esper whom the White House informally interviewed this summer about serving as defense secretary, two current officials and one former official said. The conversations took place as Trump’s monthslong threats to fire Esper intensified, officials said. The option of naming Wilkie as acting Pentagon chief would give Trump the flexibility to remove Esper immediately after the November election, if not before.
Two senior administration officials said Trump has not entirely ruled out the possibility of making a change in Pentagon leadership before the election, although some of the president’s allies have cautioned him to wait until after. Two senior administration officials said there are no current plans for Esper to be removed before the election.
“There are no plans to replace Secretary Esper,” one of the officials said.
The White House declined to comment on the record. The Veterans Affairs Department and the Pentagon declined to comment.
The relationship between Trump and Esper was further strained last week when the two again publicly clashed over a policy decision. The president pointedly rebuffed Esper’s decision to cut funding in the Pentagon budget for Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for U.S. military personnel that has been published since the Civil War. Esper had been advised by multiple aides not to propose cutting the newspaper’s funding because the move would draw a political backlash, and it did from Republicans and Democrats.
A White House official said Trump thought the decision was “politically stupid,” and on Friday he wrote on Twitter, “The United States of America will NOT be cutting funding to @starsandstripes magazine under my watch.”
The tensions between Trump and Esper persist as the president is under criticism over allegations that he made disparaging comments about the military after The Atlantic reported that he privately called veterans “suckers” and “losers.”
Esper has served as Trump’s third defense secretary for just over a year. He was confirmed by the Senate in July, succeeding acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Trump’s first Pentagon chief, James Mattis.
Trump has told aides for months that he is unhappy with Esper and wants to fire him. Trump’s allies inside and outside the White House have told him that shaking up leadership at the Pentagon before the Nov. 3 election