Republicans’ response to the ouster of Mark T. Esper as defense secretary has been noticeably circumspect, especially when compared with the explosion of criticism hurled at Trump when he fired Esper’s predecessor, Jim Mattis, nearly two years ago. To date, Republican lawmakers have offered praise for Esper’s tenure and little else.
Congressional aides say the anodyne public expressions represent a concerted attempt to self-muzzle, as the political party that prides itself on being strong on national security grapples with its fear of antagonizing an erratic and impulsive lame-duck president while battling to keep control of the Senate.
“They see the extraordinarily high stakes in the Georgia Senate runoffs,” Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said Wednesday. “Creating a deep internal division in the party right now could jeopardize those seats, and the calculus they’ve made is that sticking with Trump is a better course of action at this stage.”
GOP leaders have set an “unspoken standard,” as it was put by one of several congressional Republican aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations, not to “rock the boat too much before Georgia.”
But the president’s decision to replace Pentagon leaders with Trump loyalists — including one person previously deemed too controversial for Senate confirmation — nonetheless has grievously upset most Republican members, the aides explained, particularly as it appears clear that Trump fired Esper in retribution for their policy differences.
GOP aides described the sudden change in leadership as an “unwise” move that could cause “chaos” within the U.S. national security establishment as the country already is vulnerable to threats. Multiple GOP aides also surmised that the shake-up would hamper the incoming Biden administration if Trump’s newly chosen leaders and senior staff withhold information from his opponent’s transition team while the president contests the election outcome.
To date, however, it is almost exclusively Democrats expressing such sentiments publicly, while Republicans — at least outwardly — seek to portray the changes as underwhelming.
“Presidents get to make that decision about their Cabinet members,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) said in an interview Wednesday on Washington Post Live. “It’s not shocking that the president would make a change.”
Still, GOP aides concede it will become more difficult for Republican members to remain silent if Trump makes good on signals that he also plans to make changes at the highest levels of the intelligence community — and there would be an “earthquake” of objection among Republican lawmakers, as one aide put it, if Trump tried to fire any senior uniformed military officers.
There has been speculation that CIA Director Gina Haspel or FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, both of whom have earned Trump’s ire for contradicting him publicly, might be in jeopardy. Trump’s allies have sent the clearest signals that Haspel might be next on the chopping block. The conjecture has been such that several Republican senators made a point this week of voicing their support for her.
When Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) was then accused by an operative close to the Trumps of trying to “manipulate” the president into keeping Haspel, the senator responded on Twitter that “Intelligence should not be partisan. Not about manipulation, it is about preserving impartial, nonpartisan information necessary to inform policymakers . . . .”