The mystery is whether the Esper firing is simply an act of pique and petulance by a president who is fuming about having lost his reelection bid, or whether this 11th-hour reshuffle has a deeper and potentially more dangerous purpose. Either way, a half-dozen Pentagon veterans described it as a sign of Trump’s disrespect for the military as his power ebbs.

Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, argued that it was “pretty reckless” for Trump to dump his Pentagon leadership during a post-election transition of power — a time when adversaries can take advantage of any American weakness or disorientation. Gates said he was concerned about “not having an experienced and steady hand that the military knows.”

Another top former Pentagon official, a Republican, contended that Trump’s move was “just spite,” and that it would have no effect on operations. “We shouldn’t worry about it,” he said. “The troops will stand watch, and in the short term there will be no operational effect at all.” The military command structure is organized precisely to prevent sudden personnel changes from diminishing the military’s readiness or operations, several current and former officials argued.