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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.
President Donald Trump’s petulant decision to fire Defense Secretary Mark Esper, via Twitter of course, was both shocking and predictable.
It’s shocking that a president who just lost an election would fire a member of his Cabinet at the start of what is supposed to be a peaceful transfer of power. Then again, that president is Trump and that defense secretary is Esper, who has been on the outs with Trump since at least June.
Esper was in the president’s crosshairs because he opposed the president’s desire to send active duty military into U.S. cities during the unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. Such a move would have almost certainly escalated tensions in U.S. cities.
That said, in this instance Trump did not prove himself to be the authoritarian menace that his opposition claims. Trump could have fired Esper then and there. Instead he waited and seethed, sounding like a dictator but not acting like one. Only now, when he actually is a lame duck, is Trump choosing to settle scores.
One senior administration official tells me that it’s likely there will be more firings on the way out the door. Among those on the list are CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray. Trump and his allies have accused both of failing to support the declassification of documents that would further expose abuses in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
If Trump followed through on these threats to fire Haspel and Wray, it would again be shocking but not surprising. Since the beginning of his presidency, Trump and his close advisers have often conveyed the feeling that they are besieged by their own government.
Trump actually did have some reason to suspect his own government was undermining him, particularly during his transition. Former FBI Director James Comey famously recorded notes of his conversations with the new president. After Trump fired him, he leaked them to the media and testified that he had hoped those notes would spur the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate the president — which is exactly what happened.
At the same time, Trump needlessly exacerbated tensions with his own Cabinet. His decision to impetuously withdraw U.S. forces from Syria prompted his first defense secretary, James Mattis, to resign. And soon after Mattis left, Trump reversed his decision.
It appears now that he will leave office in the manner in which he has governed: recklessly. The difference is that, now that he has lost his bid for reelection, his outbursts are not the tirades of a tyrant. Trump could have accepted defeat and focused on the fact that his presidency has remade both the Republican Party and the American political map. If he wished to run in 2024, he could start making that argument now.