Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Is Trump going to fire Esper? | Head of nuclear security agency resigns | US military acknowledges two civilian injuries in Somalia

Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Rebecca Kheel, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s position is appearing more precarious by the day.

Talk is picking up that President Trump could fire members of his Cabinet, including Esper, even as the presidential election goes uncalled.

Esper has long been seen as out-the-door regardless of who wins the election, including the possibility that he would resign during the transition period if Trump loses.

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin reported Friday that multiple sources tell him Esper could be fired as early as this week.

A GOP source has echoed this expectation to The Hill that Esper may be gone as soon as this week, but another source familiar with the matter cautioned Friday morning that nothing is definitive.

A House Armed Services Committee aide said Friday the panel has not been “advised on any imminent personnel changes within Pentagon leadership.”

What the Pentagon says: The Pentagon on Friday referred The Hill to a statement issued the day before in response to an NBC News report that Esper has prepared a letter of resignation. In the statement, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Esper “has no plans to resign, nor has he been asked to submit a letter of resignation.”

“He continues to serve the nation as the secretary of Defense at the pleasure of the president and is working on the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy,” Hoffman said in Thursday’s statement. “The speculation about potential resignations of Cabinet officials is a tiresome, well-worn, DC-insider, post-election parlor game.”

What the White House says: Asked about chatter that Trump will soon fire Esper, White House spokesman Judd Deere said Friday that “if the president doesn’t have confidence in someone he will let you know. The White House does not speculate or comment on personnel matters.”

Others on the chopping block: Questions are also swirling as to whether FBI Director Christopher Wray and CIA Director Gina Haspel will be ousted as well, as the president and his allies grow increasingly frustrated that the two top intelligence officials won’t wade into political matters. 

Trump and his allies are frustrated that officials like Wray will not meet the president’s calls for the launch of a formal investigation to examine the business dealings of his political opponent’s son, Hunter Biden. They are also irked by his resistance to firing officials tied to the 2016 Russia probe that Trump has alleged have acted improperly.

MEANWHILE, IN RESIGNATIONS: The head of the agency charged with securing the U.S. nuclear arsenal abruptly resigned Friday.

The Energy Department announced National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) head Lisa Gordon-Hagerty’s resignation in a news release Friday afternoon, after Defense News had broken the news of her departure.

Gordon-Hagerty, who was confirmed in 2018, was the first woman to serve in the role.

William Bookless, who has been serving as NNSA principal deputy administrator for the last year-and-a-half, will step in as acting administrator, according to the release.

Why now?: A resignation while votes are being counted in the presidential election raises some eyebrows, particularly in this case because NNSA administrators often carry over between administrations.

Two senior NNSA officials told Defense News the resignation was not affected by this week’s election.

The press release did not provide any details on the reason behind Gordon-Hagerty’s resignation, but two NNSA officials told Defense News that the resignation stems from nearly a year of tensions between Gordon-Hagerty’s office and Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette.

The fight spilled out into public view this year during the budgeting process when Brouillette requested less funding for NNSA than Gordon-Hagerty sought. Eventually, defense officials and defense hawks on Capitol Hill got the issue resolved in NNSA’s favor, but tensions reportedly remained.

AFRICOM ACKNOWLEDGES TWO MORE CIVILIAN CASUALTIES: U.S. Africa Command (Africom) released Friday the latest of its relatively new series of quarterly reports on civilian casualties results from its airstrike.

In the report, Africom acknowledged that two civilians were injured in an airstrike in February.

“We employ a rigorous airstrike and assessment process while operating in a complex and challenging environment,” Africom commander Gen. Stephen Townsend said in a statement. “We are focused on degrading al Shabaab, disrupting their activities and impacting their ability to plan and carry out attacks. Unfortunately in the process of doing so, we assess injuries to two civilians occurred during an airstrike on Feb. 17.”

The strike at issue happened near Jilib, Somalia. At the time, Africom said it assessed one al Shabaab facility was destroyed and that there were no civilian casualties.

Since then, Africom received three reports saying that two civilians were injured, according to Friday’s report.

Background: Outside organizations accuse the U.S. military of severely undercounting the number of civilians it kills. Africom in particular has come under fire as it did not acknowledge any civilian casualties until last year.

In April 2019, Africom acknowledged for the first time that two civilians were killed in an airstrike in Somalia the year before.

Then, this April, Africom released its first official quarterly report on civilian casualties, acknowledging another two civilian deaths from a 2019 airstrike in Somalia.

The second quarterly report, released in July, acknowledged one more civilian death in Somalia.


Defense Innovation Board Chair Mark Sirangelo will provide opening remarks at Nextgov/Defense One’s virtual “Roadmap to Modernization” event at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/2IdfksK

The Center for a New American Security will hold an virtual panel discussion on “Election 2020: The Future of U.S. National Security” at 1 p.m. https://bit.ly/38hsiAL


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Tags Christopher Wray Donald Trump Gina Haspel Joe Biden Judd Deere Mark Esper
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