Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper details his fraught relationship with Trump

During the 18 months Mark Esper served as secretary of defense, he often clashed with President Trump, who wanted to use the military in ways Esper thought were inappropriate. Trump fired Esper in November 2020, a few days after Trump lost the election. Esper sat down with Judy Woodruff to discuss his experiences, which he details in a new book, "A Sacred Oath."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    During the 18 months that Mark Esper served as secretary of defense, he clashed at times with former President Trump over proposals to use the military in ways Esper thought were inappropriate.

    Trump fired Esper in November 2020, a few days after Trump lost reelection.

    I sat down with Esper yesterday to discuss his experiences, which he details in a new book, "A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times."

    Mark Esper, thank you very much for joining us.

    In this book, I think there are so many questionable, even astonishing ideas that you write about that emerged from either former President Trump or the people around him, that it was hard to keep track of them all. I wrote I wrote down firing missiles from the U.S. into Mexico to go after the drug cartels, striking Iran, sending 250,000 U.S. troops to the Southern border.

    How is it that none of these actually came to happen?

  • Mark Esper, Former U.S. Defense Secretary:

    Well, I think, Judy, that there were myself and others in the Cabinet who successfully at times, either individually or together, were able to talk the president and others out of these ideas, which we thought just didn't make sense and would — could end up doing more harm than good.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In particular, I mean, you open the book with June the 1st, 2020. This is in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, when there had been protests in Washington.

    And there's a meeting in the White House, where former President Trump is asking you and others to do something about it.

    Tell us about that particular day, that meeting.

  • Mark Esper:

    Well, as I recount in the book, General Milley and I get called to the White House early that morning.

    And we report in. And people are already assembled. And almost immediately, the president begins shouting that he's very irate that the protests were occurring and that so much was happening.

    And it was true that we did have violence taking place. People were hurt, Park Police, National Guard. And it seemed to be that violence was breaking out, at least to him, all around the country as well.

    And so his frustration really grew, to the point where he was talking about the invocation of the Insurrection Act and the deployment of 10,000 active-duty troops into the streets of the nation's capital. And it was at that point in time that I, Bill Barr, and with General Milley's assistance as well, began pushing back on that notion.

    And my view was that this was a law enforcement problem that the — that the military, the National Guard, could support and should support as needed, but this was a law enforcement issue, not — certainly not a matter for the active-duty forces to be involved in.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, at the time, the public didn't know exactly what the president was asking for. He also, as you say in the book in your opening page, was saying: Why can't you just go out and shoot the protesters in the legs?

    It was later on that you and General Milley and others walked with the president over across Lafayette Square, stood in front of the church there. He was holding the Bible.

    What was going on in your mind at that time?

  • Mark Esper:

    Look, it was obviously a very shocking and troubling remark for the president to suggest that we shoot protesters, we shoot Americans in the streets of the nations capital. And needless to say, I and I suspect others there, were all taken aback by that notion, and successfully were able to push back on that and come up with a proposal that didn't call for that.

    But, clearly, it took hold of us for the day, if you will, and it obviously led to my mistake in terms of walking across Lafayette Park. And I think General Milley feels the same way as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you say, Mark Esper, to those who look at what happened that day, what the president was suggesting, and say, you should have spoken up at that moment and you should have even resigned your position?

  • Mark Esper:

    Well, boy, look, it's a great comment. And I wrestled with this constantly about what to do.

    And you have got to keep in mind the context, because it always matters. It was in the weeks and months leading up to this that other proposals were put forward, such as shooting missiles into Mexico, the deployment of a quarter-million troops to the border, possible strikes against Venezuela.

    And each of these, I was able, with the help of others at times, to kind of push back on. And my view was that, look, I thought I was serving the country better by staying in the job than by resigning. And then, of course, I had no idea who he would put in behind me. And that was my bigger concern, was, would the president put in an uber-loyalist who would really carry out these ideas that he and others were putting forward?

    And I still wrestled with it nonetheless. It's a lesson. It's something that I want people to think about and take from this book. I

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I have seen that some people have said why — you had watched this president. You had seen what happened to your predecessor, James Mattis.

    Why did you take the job in the first place?

  • Mark Esper:

    Well, look, I have been serving my country since the age of 18, when I went to West Point. I served 10 years in the Army, both during war and peace, and then another 11 years in the National Guard. I worked on Capitol Hill.

    Look, I believe in service to country. And I thought I could make a difference. And I do think I made a difference. I think all the great people I had the honor of working with at the Pentagon really served their oath honorably. And that was my view, is, if the nation calls, I think we should all serve.

    And look, at the bottom — the bottom line is, Judy, if good people don't serve, then you're left with the bad people. And that's not what our nation needs, particularly now in this era of extreme partisanship from both sides. We need good people to serve in government, to stay in government and do the right thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you had seen how he operated as president, and you still went to work for him, and you stayed with him for 18 months.

  • Mark Esper:

    I was serving the Constitution. I was obeying my oath.

    I didn't work necessarily for the president or for the party or for a certain philosophy. My duty and my oath was to the Constitution, hence the name of my book. And, to me, that's the important thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do right in the book, Mark Esper, that you said the most shocking and troubling event of the Trump presidency was the — quote — "organization and incitement of the pro-Trump mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol."

    As you know, we know, he was impeached for that. Should he have been convicted, do you think, by the Senate?

  • Mark Esper:

    You know, I'd obviously like to see the Senate have a hearing and tease that out.

    But, to me, it was a very troubling event. The moment, it was an insurrection, an attempt to overturn a free and fair election and to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. And it was right to be impeached. And he likely would have been convicted. I just don't know. But I'd want to see that trial play out.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Had you voted for him in 2016?

  • Mark Esper:

    Yes, I did.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He is clearly thinking about running again.

    Is he qualified to be president again?

  • Mark Esper:

    I hope he doesn't run for president, in my view, that any candidate for President Trump either party, by the way, should put country over self.

    They have to have a level of integrity and principle that will carry them forward. They have got to be willing to reach across the aisle and work with others. And President Trump just doesn't meet those marks for me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I do want to read you, Mark Esper, some of what President Trump has said in the last 24 hours since some of your comments have come out.

    He has said — quote — you — he — you were a lightweight, a figurehead. He said: "Mark Esper was weak, totally ineffective." He said: "He would do anything I wanted."

  • Mark Esper:

    Well, clearly, I didn't do anything he wanted.

    And if you recall, I think another author published a story where President Trump's head of personnel put forward a two-page memo outlining all the reasons why should be fired because I didn't agree with the president or I disagreed with him and push back.

    And, look, that's the bottom line is, I would expect no less from the president to do some degree of name-calling and bad mouthing. But that's fine. Look, people will make their own decisions about him, about me, and about who's telling the truth.

    And, look, what I — what I'm trying to do is tell an important story for the American people, for history about a very tumultuous and consequential time in our nation. And that's the purpose behind me writing this book.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark Esper.

    The book is "A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times."

    Thank you very much.

  • Mark Esper:

    Thank you, Judy.

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