WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump has privately said that he intends to replace Secretary of Defense Mark Esper after the November election, according to people familiar with internal discussions.
One person said Esper has told people close to him that he intends to leave regardless of the election's outcome, meaning he could exit the administration about two months before Trump does, if the president loses.
Trump has been frustrated that Esper, who became secretary in July 2019, hasn't done more to publicly defend him on key issues, including reports that Russia paid Taliban fighters "bounties" for the killing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Trump was also angered that Esper in June publicly opposed the idea of deploying active-duty military to contain nationwide protests over racism. He confronted his defense secretary June 3 at the White House after Esper held a news conference in which he said that using active-duty military forces to perform law enforcement within the U.S. is "a matter of last resort" and that the National Guard was better-suited to the task, people familiar with the matter said.
The pushback from Esper followed Trump's threat to send military forces to cities and states that failed to quell violence from the protests, which were sparked by the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis police custody.
Asked at the time whether the president still had confidence in Esper, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany responded that "should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future."
John McEntee, head of Trump's presidential personnel office, is helping strategize possible changes, people familiar with the matter said.
White House spokesman Judd Deere said Wednesday: "We have no personnel announcements at this time nor would it be appropriate to speculate about changes after the election or in a 2nd term."
Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said it's Esper's "highest honor and privilege" to serve the nation, and recognizes that he does so "at the pleasure of the president."
An official close to Esper, who asked not to be identified, added that Esper is committed to serving as long as Trump wants him to.