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 would create turmoil in his administration during the closing weeks of the campaign. It would come at a time when the president is planning to reduce the number of U.S. forces in hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Esper's standing with Trump has taken a significant hit this summer, after he broke with the president on several high-profile issues.
In June, Esper told NBC News that he would not support using the Insurrection Act to quell civil unrest across the country, even though Trump was leaving open the possibility of invoking the law to deploy federalized troops to respond to the protests.
Another recent point of friction was the idea of renaming military bases named for Confederate generals and leaders. In June, Esper said he was open to the idea of renaming the bases. But days later, Trump issued a series of tweets denouncing the idea, writing that "my Administration will not even consider renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations." He followed up with "Respect our Military!"
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Later in the summer, when asked whether he had confidence in his defense secretary, Trump took a notable swipe at Esper. "Mark Yesper?" he responded, using the nickname some lawmakers and administration officials use to privately deride Esper as Trump's "yes man."
"Some people call him Yesper," Trump added. "I get along with him fine. He's fine."
Asked whether he had considered firing Esper, Trump said: "I consider firing everybody. At some point, at some point, that's what happens."
Wilkie, who has been VA secretary since July 2018, has spent years working in various positions at the Pentagon. He was Mattis' undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, and he held more junior roles under defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates. Wilkie remains a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
In March, Wilkie was named a member of the coronavirus task force set up by Vice President Mike Pence. A senior administration official said the task force work raised Wilkie's visibility and profile with Trump and other White House officials in recent weeks.