Mark Esper
Mark EsperReuters

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has prepared a letter of resignation, according to three current defense officials quoted by NBC News on Thursday.

While it is not uncommon for Cabinet secretaries to prepare undated letters of resignation during a presidential transition, defense officials say Esper prepared his letter because he is one of the Cabinet officials long expected to be pushed out after the election.

As his tenure may be coming to an end, Esper is helping members of Congress draft legislation that will strip names of Confederate leaders from military bases in a move that could put him further at odds with President Donald Trump, according to NBC News.

While Esper considered issuing a directive that would order the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force to change the names in their respective services — an order that could be overturned by Trump, who has strongly opposed renaming bases — he now plans to work with Congress to put language in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) so the name changes will be written into law.

This week Esper provided a written framework to Pentagon leaders for renaming installations, and possibly even ships and street names on bases, that honor Confederate generals or leaders, the officials said.

“The speculation about potential resignations of Cabinet officials is a well-worn, D.C.-insider, post-election parlor game,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, in a statement. "[Secretary Esper] continues to serve the nation as the secretary of defense at the pleasure of the president and is at the Pentagon today working on the irreversible implementation of the National Defense Strategy.”

“As is normal and expected, the department works with Congress to provide the administration’s concerns and views regarding proposed defense-related legislation — particularly when House and Senate versions of defense bills are being reconciled and finalized. This does not indicate support for previously proposed legislative language. Out of respect for the members of Congress who have sought technical assistance in good faith, we generally do not discuss these efforts.”

The NDAA, which outlines the military's budget and policies, is expected to be passed during the lame duck session of Congress in coming weeks, and Trump would have to sign it for it to become law.

NBC News noted that Esper has long been at odds with Trump. The two disagreed on the use of active-duty U.S. military to quell protests this summer.

Two current defense officials said Esper believes that if he announces the renaming it could lead Trump to fire him. Esper, however, is not pushing the renaming because he wants to get fired, according to two other defense officials, who insist he believes this issue is important.

A White House official said, "We don't comment on personnel matters or speculate on potential changes within the administration."

Esper took over as acting defense secretary in June of last year when Patrick Shanahan abruptly quit after having served as acting secretary since the departure of Jim Mattis in December of 2018.

Esper was appointed as permanent Defense Secretary in July of 2019.

Mattis had resigned after two years in the job after a series of policy disagreements with Trump, climaxing with Trump's decision to pull US troops out of Syria.