Defense secretary’s press avoidance speaks volumes

Mark Esper has limited his comments to reporters since drawing Trump’s ire

Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrives for a House Armed Services Committee hearing July 9, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrives for a House Armed Services Committee hearing July 9, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 8, 2020 at 6:00am

Corrected, 4:27 p.m. | There are certain jobs in America that should be filled by someone who can take the heat. It shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that the Defense secretary, with the authority to send Americans into combat and control over a $700 billion budget of taxpayer funds, is one of them.

Yet over the past four months, Mark T. Esper, who has been in the job since July 2019, has been virtually AWOL when it comes to interacting with the press.

Best I can tell, Esper last fielded questions in the Pentagon briefing room on July 29. His last Pentagon briefing before then was June 3, just days after he and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, accompanied President Donald Trump on his now-infamous jaunt across Lafayette Square for a photo op in the midst of protests in Washington.

At that briefing, Esper enraged his famously mercurial boss — and set Washington buzzing about the potential for another fired Cabinet member — when he said the administration did not need to invoke the Insurrection Act and use the military to quell the protests, as Trump reportedly wanted.

On July 22, he engaged reporters who traveled with him to Whiteman Air Force Base. But when a reporter asked about federal security personnel wearing military-style uniforms during protests in Portland, Oregon, Esper insisted on sticking to his preferred topic, the Missouri installation’s fleet of B-2 bombers.

Weeks later, on Aug. 8, he appeared on the Trump-friendly Fox News program “Justice with Judge Jeanine,” discussing the massive explosion in Beirut, tensions with China and Russia, and reducing troop levels in Germany and Afghanistan.

And that’s pretty much it, aside from answering a total of two questions during three State Department briefings in recent months.

Esper’s avoidance of the press has not gone unnoticed. Last month, Jeff Schogol of Task and Purpose, a news outlet focused on military issues, observed that Esper appears to be trying to “fly under the radar as long as possible.” Washington Post Pentagon reporters Missy Ryan and Dan LaMonthe both tweeted after traveling separately with Esper — traditionally a sought-after opportunity to get some prime access to the SecDef — that he conducted zero on-the-record interviews.

The obvious inference is that Esper is trying to keep from getting fired by avoiding any headline or sound bite that might catch the attention of the commander in chief, a voracious consumer of news.

Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, offers a more generous interpretation of Esper’s motives: He is trying to shield the Pentagon from any involvement, perceived or actual, in the partisan rancor of the election.

“I think it is fine that Secretary Esper is quietly around the world doing his job,” Schake told me. “I am much more worried about the political campaign and the president’s political advisers thrusting our military and the Defense Department civilian leadership into a position where they appear to be engaged in partisan politics.”

But Schake also acknowledges the importance of accountability.

“Everybody who has the privilege of holding public office in the United States needs to be accountable, and needs to be available to our journalists to assist in that accountability,” she said.

Dave Lapan, a retired Marine colonel and former Pentagon spokesman who is now vice president of communications at the Bipartisan Policy Center, says that experienced, savvy political operators — and he includes Esper in that category — know how to pivot away or deflect from a question they’d prefer not to answer. But the men and women who serve in the Defense Department and armed forces need a strong voice to answer and inform on their behalf, and there are times when that voice needs to come from the top.

“It’s fine for the secretary to want to keep the military out of politics,” Lapan said. “He can’t keep himself out of politics; he’s a political appointee. If he wants to avoid a lot of the political churn, that’s fine, but you don’t do it by going completely silent.”

Given the current uncertainty emanating from the White House following Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Esper’s presence in the Pentagon briefing room could provide reassurance to the American public, the military and U.S. allies that the Defense Department is continuing to function normally.

Hours after news broke on Tuesday that most of the Joint Chiefs were in self-quarantine after exposure to a senior Coast Guard official who tested positive, Esper spoke at a think tank event. He didn’t veer from his script, which focused on Navy shipbuilding plans going all the way out to 2045, and took no questions from the press.

“He has a responsibility as the secretary of Defense to keep the public and the press informed about the DOD’s activities, and he has not done that,” Lapan said. “A critical [duty] is to be visible, to be out there speaking on behalf of the department and the men and women who serve in it, particularly in a time where there’s so much confusion and chaos around everything.”

Esper understands the power of the briefing room. That’s why he continues to record public service announcements there, knowing that its podium instantly confers credibility. The Pentagon dutifully tweets these PSAs out, as if a prerecorded statement is somehow comparable to an actual briefing.

But let me just say, to Esper and all future Pentagon leaders: If you are unwilling to regularly field questions from the Pentagon press corps, you are doing a disservice to the American public, which deserves to know exactly how the nation’s blood and treasure are being spent.

And you are doing a disservice to the men and women of the armed forces, who deserve the strongest possible leader and advocate. Silence leaves the field open for those who would do the U.S. harm to set the narrative, to frame the discussion of military power and its uses in ways that hurt American interests.

Ducking the press is not the answer. It may reduce the daily headaches (and getting chewed out by irate White House officials, up to and including the president), but it creates lingering problems and undermines public faith in a vital American institution.

If keeping your job is more important than doing it correctly, then maybe that E-ring office is not for you.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly reported the last date of Esper’s last press briefing at the Pentagon. He also participated in three State Department briefings, where he answered  two questions.

Andrew Clevenger is a CQ Roll Call defense reporter. Contact him at andrewclevenger@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter @andclev.