White House reportedly eyeing Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to replace Mark Esper as defense secretary

Trump and Mark Esper
(Image credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

President Trump has had three defense secretaries during his tenure, and he may soon have his fourth. NBC News reports White House officials are in talks with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie about stepping in as defense secretary should Trump fire existing Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Wilkie's role on the White House's COVID-19 task force apparently raised his profile with the president.

Trump has reportedly long been displeased with Esper, who has been in the role for about a year. He recently broke with Trump on a handful of issues including renaming military bases that are named for Confederate leaders (Esper said yes, Trump said no) and invoking the Insurrection Act to send federal troops to cities experiencing protests (Esper said no, Trump said maybe). Now, tensions are especially high between Trump and Esper, NBC News reports, as the president faces backlash for allegedly calling U.S. veterans "losers" and "suckers."

Shaking up the top job at the Pentagon might give Trump his fall guy, but allies are reportedly concerned it could also "create turmoil in his administration during the closing weeks of the campaign." NBC reports that "the option of naming Wilkie as acting Pentagon chief would give Trump the flexibility to remove Esper immediately after the November election, if not before."

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Officials told NBC News "there are no plans to replace Secretary Esper." Last month, though, when asked about the issue, Trump said: "I consider firing everybody. At some point, at some point, that's what happens."

Read more at NBC News.

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Jessica Hullinger

Jessica Hullinger is a writer and former deputy editor of The Week Digital. Originally from the American Midwest, she completed a degree in journalism at Indiana University Bloomington before relocating to New York City, where she pursued a career in media. After joining The Week as an intern in 2010, she served as the title’s audience development manager, senior editor and deputy editor, as well as a regular guest on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. Her writing has featured in other publications including Popular Science, Fast Company, Fortune, and Self magazine, and she loves covering science and climate-related issues.