(It didn't help that when Robert Burns, The Associated Press' venerated Pentagon correspondent, called Central Command to ask for an update, a spokesman said the command will no longer "play this game," i.e. provide factual information about the injuries, according to a tweet from Burns.)
The issue also laid bare the quandary that faces Esper and the Pentagon: Answering truthfully could put them at odds with the commander in chief.
At his confirmation hearing in July, Esper said he would "absolutely" be willing to consider resigning if he was asked to do something "illegal, immoral or unethical."
Seven months later, we are left wondering: Is undermining the credibility of the Defense Department ethical?
Ever since the U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Esper has come off at times like a cat chasing a laser pointer as he attempts to explain or backtrack the administration's conflicting statements.
Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, initially described the killing as necessary to stop an "imminent" attack on U.S. personnel in the region. After closed-door briefings, some lawmakers were dubious about just how imminent those attacks were.
Later, Trump, who authorized the strike, said repeatedly that Iran planned to attack four U.S. embassies. Asked about that claim on CBS' "Face the Nation," Esper said he had not seen a specific piece of evidence "with regard to four embassies."
Esper did say he shared the president's view that the threat "could have been attacks against additional embassies."
Trump later tweeted that "it doesn't really matter" if an attack was imminent. And, according to NBC News, the strike had been in the works for seven months. Esper hasn't addressed either.
"That's deeply corrosive to the confidence the Congress will have in the secretary of defense," said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, of Esper's verbal gymnastics. "He is either not being honest, or he's not doing his job properly."