President Donald Trump has held talks with the current Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie about replacing Defense Secretary Mark Esper, according to multiple White House officials who spoke with NBC on condition of anonymity.
Two of NBC’s White House sources said Trump has already spoken with Wilkie last month about having him take over heading the Department of Defense and two more NBC sources said Wilkie had already gone through senior-level discussions about the Pentagon role.
Trump has reportedly been unhappy with Esper for months. He had questioned whether Esper could still effectively lead at the Pentagon after Esper voiced opposition to using active military troops to respond to civil unrest following the death of George Floyd. While Trump raised the idea of using the National Guard and even active military units to respond to rioting, Esper said the military “should only be used as a last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations” and said, “we are not in one of those situations now.”
Trump reportedly considered firing Esper over the riot control dispute.
Two current and one former White House official said Wilkie was among several names being considered to replace Esper. NBC’s sources also said Trump has not ruled out the idea of replacing Esper before the November 3 election.
However, two senior administration officials also said there are no current plans to remove Esper before the election. “There are no plans to replace Secretary Esper,” one of the officials told NBC.
In August, Trump responded publicly to speculation about Esper’s tenure, saying “I get along with [Esper]. I get along with him fine. He’s fine,” but also said “I consider firing everybody” and added, “At some point, that’s what happens.”
Esper is the third person to act as the Secretary of Defense under Trump, following Trump’s first pick of U.S. Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, and then acting-Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Esper became Trump’s second confirmed defense secretary in July 2019.
Speculation about a rift between Trump and Esper returned after a leaked Department of Defense memo described plans to shut down the Stars and Stripes newspaper. Trump came out hours later, tweeting in opposition to the Stars and Stripes being shut down.
Esper had initially described the plans to cut the publication’s budget during a February NATO conference, saying “we need to invest that money, as we did with many, many other programs, into higher-priority issues.”
A White House official told NBC that Trump thought the decision to cut funding to the Stars and Stripes was “politically stupid.”
Wilkie has served in a variety of capacities in the Trump administration. He has served as VA secretary since July 2018, and prior to his VA role, he served under Mattis as Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness between November 2017 and July 2018.