One of the most fateful acts of Donald Trump’s first months in power was a firing—his abrupt sacking of FBI Director James Comey, whom he deemed insufficiently loyal. That’s how Trump came in, and it’s the way he seems to be going out: spiting those he believes wronged him over the course of his presidency.
Earlier this week, he announced in a terse tweet that he had “terminated” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, “effective immediately.” He gave no reason because there really was no clear reason, though one theory is that Esper was among the senior officials who opposed a White House push to declassify information about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. (Right until the end, Trump remains fixated on showing that he won four years ago without Russia’s help.) What is known is that Esper had repeatedly crossed the president, including by batting down his idea of sending soldiers into the streets this summer to quash protests over racial injustice. His ouster, part of a broader purge of civilian leadership at the Pentagon, may be only a prelude to more dismissals to come, as Trump, angry and aggrieved over his defeat, makes full use of his executive authority before it slips away.
But he has other means of retaliating against officials who recoiled at his actions or spoke out about his behavior in office. He could strip officials of their security clearance or try to expel career government employees he deems part of a “deep state” conspiracy to deprive him of a second term. Unless Twitter stops him, he can use social media to humiliate critics and expose them to the wrath of his vast following. Some former officials already worry about what may await them between now and Inauguration Day.