Trump decision points to last act
Donald Trump's days in the White House might be numbered but there are concerns about what moves he could still make during his last months as US President.
Ever since Mr Esper publicly opposed Mr Trump's idea to use active duty troops to deal with Black Lives Matter protests in Washington D.C. earlier this year, it was widely expected he would quit or be forced out if Mr Trump won the election.
However, to ensure stability outgoing presidents don't usually make changes to national security leaders during the transition period.
Jim Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral who served as a senior aide to Republican Donald Rumsfeld, wrote on Twitter that things were already unstable internationally and firing Mr Esper did not help.
"We need to try and create stability in transition time - hopefully opponents will not try and take advantage," he wrote.
The move has also raised concerns about what the President may try to do in the next couple of months before leaving office.
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CNN anchor Jake Tapper suggested Mr Esper's sacking may be linked to a fast-tracked withdrawal from Afghanistan, something that is a major concern to national security officials.
In a tweet on Wednesday (local time), he said the administration now seemed focused on going after Mr Esper's undersecretaries at the Department of Defence, with sources suggesting the Pentagon's top policy official, James Anderson, resigned on Tuesday.
"Why? Sources say it may be because Esper and his team were pushing back on what they viewed as a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan before conditions were met, as well as other pending security issues," he wrote.
During his four-year term, Mr Trump has baulked at the use of American forces at war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan even while he has pushed for their greater use on US soil including at the Mexico border and in cities rocked by civil unrest.
In the 2016 campaign, Mr Trump pledged to bring all troops home from "endless wars" but this has been criticised by military commanders, defence leaders and even Republicans worried about the consequences of abruptly abandoning partners on the ground.
There are now indications he intends to move further on fulfilling this commitment.
The US military was blindsided in October when Mr Trump suggested all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by Christmas.
"We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE Men and Women serving in Afghanistan home by Christmas," Mr Trump tweeted on October 7.
The move alarmed Pentagon and State officials who were worried that setting a date for troop withdrawal could undercut negotiations to finalise a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, according to the Military Times.
There are also concerns a rapid withdrawal could see the US leave behind sensitive military equipment.
A key element of the US withdrawal plan for the Taliban to reduce violence against the Afghans, has also not been met.
However, US officials told the Military Times ahead of the presidential election that there was no actual plan to bring troops home by Christmas at that stage.
Mr Trump has said he intends to continue reducing troops in Afghanistan and other countries.
While Joe Biden agrees the war needs to end he has only said he would pull "the vast majority" of US troops out of Afghanistan.
Mr Trump's first Defence Secretary, James Mattis, resigned in December 2018 over the President's abrupt decision, which was later cancelled, to pull all US troops out of Syria.
He has now named Christopher Miller, the director of the National Counter-terrorism Centre, as acting Defence Secretary.
FURTHER PRESSURE ON IRAN
Interestingly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday announced a seven-nation tour of US allies, which have congratulated President-elect Joe Biden despite Donald Trump's refusal to concede.
Mr Pompeo said he will leave on Friday for Paris and then head to Istanbul and the former Soviet republic of Georgia before visiting Jerusalem and three key Gulf Arab allies - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The trip will discuss Mr Trump's "historic efforts to forge peace and co-operation throughout the Middle East," Mr Pompeo told reporters.
The trip will likely be awkward as Mr Trump has denied that he lost the election and his administration has refused to start the transition to Mr Biden, who will be inaugurated on January 20.
France, which like many European nations had strained relations with Mr Trump, swiftly voiced hope of working with Mr Biden, who shares French priorities on fighting climate change, co-operating against the COVID-19 pandemic and pursuing diplomacy with Iran.
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - all friends of Mr Trump - have also congratulated Mr Biden.
The Democrat has pledged to place a higher priority on human rights and democracy, calling for a re-evaluation of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and for support for Turkey's opposition.
Mr Pompeo on his trip is expected to discuss raising further pressure on Iran in the remaining two months of the Trump administration, which in 2018 bolted from a multinational denuclearisation accord with Tehran and imposed punishing unilateral sanctions.
Israel and Gulf Arabs have seen growing relations as they share the Trump administration's hostility to Iran.
In September, both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain said they would recognise the Jewish state and Mr Trump had pressed Saudi Arabia to follow suit. Sudan has also said it will normalise relations with Israel.
Originally published as Trump decision points to last act