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Esper: If my replacement is 'a real yes man' then 'God help us'

Former Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperActing Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia Overnight Defense: Trump loyalist to lead Pentagon transition | Democrats ask VA for vaccine distribution plan | Biden to get classified intel reports Ex-Nunes aide linked to Biden conspiracy theories will lead Pentagon transition MORE said in an interview published Monday that if his replacement is “a real yes man” then “God help us.” 

In an interview last week with the Military Times, the now-former secretary said he decided to pick his fights with President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE while as the head of the Department of Defense, adding he had no regrets in how he handled himself. 

“At the end of the day, it’s as I said — you’ve got to pick your fights,” he told the Military Times on Nov. 4. “I could have a fight over anything, and I could make it a big fight, and I could live with that —why? Who’s going to come in behind me? It’s going to be a real ‘yes man.’ And then God help us.”

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When asked if other Defense secretaries have spent as much time attempting to balance the president’s wishes with their potential national security effects, he said, “Probably not. I don’t know, I’ve only worked for a couple.”

Trump announced he had fired Esper over Twitter, two days after President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden transition adds new members to coronavirus task force MORE was projected to have won the presidential election. The president named Christopher Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting secretary of Defense “effective immediately.”

"Chris will do a GREAT job! Mark Esper has been terminated. I would like to thank him for his service,” the president posted. 

Esper’s relationship with Trump had turned tense over the summer as the former secretary publicly spoke out against Trump’s plan to deploy troops to respond to racial justice protests. He told the Military Times that he had no intention of quitting but expected to be potentially terminated at an unknown time.  

The former secretary told the news outlet he “absolutely” would have resigned if Trump overruled the Pentagon’s approval for Army Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanEsper: If my replacement is 'a real yes man' then 'God help us' Ukrainian president whose call with Trump sparked impeachment congratulates Biden Alexander Vindman congratulates Biden, Harris on election victory MORE’s promotion. Vindman, who testified at Trump’s impeachment inquiry, ultimately resigned from his commission and retired from the Army after his promotion was held up. 

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Esper’s critics had labeled him as “Yesper” for allegedly going along with Trump’s plans, which the former secretary said he takes issue with. 

“My frustration is I sit here and say, ‘Hm, 18 Cabinet members. Who’s pushed back more than anybody?’ Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back,” he said. "Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’ "

But Esper told the Military Times he felt like he had to continue as secretary despite the tensions with Trump and the White House.

“Yeah, look, I mean ― my soldiers don’t get to quit,” he said. “So if I’m going to quit, it better be over something really, really big. And otherwise, look, I’m going to do what I’ve always done, which is try and shape it the best I can.”