Esper Warned Armed Forces Against Being Coopted By Trump Desperate To Retain Power

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 01: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during the daily White House coronavirus press briefing April 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. After announcing yeste... WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 01: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks as U.S. President Donald Trump listens during the daily White House coronavirus press briefing April 1, 2020 in Washington, DC. After announcing yesterday that COVID-19 could kill between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans, the Trump administration is also contending with the economic effects of the outbreak as the stock market continues to fall, businesses remain closed, and companies lay off and furlough employees. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) MORE LESS

In the weeks before the 2020 election, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper directed senior military leaders to alert him to any “unusual” requests from the White House.

Esper wrote about the directives and his concerns that Trump would use the military to intervene in the election in his new memoir, A Sacred Oath, a copy of which was obtained by TPM.

The former Pentagon chief wrote that concern in the military began to increase in September 2020, as racial justice protests began to subside.

“These were crazy days, so I didn’t want to take anything for granted. I had watched as the President became more aggressive, egged on by some in the White House, as the election neared and the polls remain[ed] unchanged with Biden at a high single-digit lead,” Esper wrote, saying that while there was “nothing concrete we could point to,” he understood that Trump “often turned to the military when times got tough.”

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Esper wrote that, specifically, he and some senior military leaders were concerned that Trump would ask the military to get involved as he was already “setting the stage” to “claim voter fraud if he lost the election.”

Over the summer, the book says, Trump had sought to employ the National Guard against the nationwide protests that began in response to the murder of George Floyd, including demands to “shoot” peaceful protestors. Esper wrote that the experience made him worried about the National Guard specifically.

So, on October 22, 2020, Esper told all fifty state adjutant generals — the heads of each state’s national guard — to be on the lookout.

Esper asked them “to keep us in the Pentagon informed about their activities and let us know immediately if they were, or expected to be, directed to do something out of the normal.”

Esper added that, “long ago,” he had directed Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley to inform “the combatant commanders to give us a heads-up at once if they ever received a phone call from anyone in the White House, especially if any unusual requests came with it.”

It’s more stunning evidence of the lengths to which senior military officials went, in the run-up to the election, to prevent the President from using the armed forces as a tool as he sought to secure another term. Esper wrote in the memoir that, had Trump directed the military to interfere, he would have called “senior Republicans on Capitol Hill requesting their intercession with the President,” held a press conference to tell the nation “about all that had transpired and continued to unfold,” and “resign on the spot in protest.”

Milley, Esper wrote, privately told him that the entire Joint Chiefs had “discussed such a scenario, and all had agreed to resign if pressed to break their oath.” Carol Leonnig and Phillip Rucker first reported that in their 2021 book, I Alone Can Fix It.

Esper also wrote about other efforts involving the military and the election, including his attempts to assure the Chinese that the U.S. would not provoke a “military confrontation” during the election.

Milley got into hot water on the right for his actions during this period, with some Trumpers accusing him of undermining the President’s authority. Esper wrote in the memoir that he directed Milley to conduct separate outreach to the Chinese.

Esper said that he sent a message to unnamed Chinese officials in October 2020 saying, “we understand that you have concerns,” and that “we are not seeking any type of confrontation.”

He also wrote of similar concerns around Iran, saying that in October 2020, he was “more concerned that someone in the White House would…boost Trump’s ratings – by tasking the U.S. military to do something extraordinary.”

That, Esper wrote, manifested itself through a number of summer 2020 interactions with Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser.

“O’Brien was pushing for REDACTED and military action, with Pence subtly leaning in behind him, also seeming to support some type of action,” Esper wrote, referring to a July 2020 meeting. “The president has an appetite to do something,” O’Brien purportedly told Esper.

Later, Milley relayed to Esper what the plan was: Trump “wanted to strike a senior Iranian military officer who was operating outside of Iran.” Esper wrote that the desire for action seemed to have fizzled as the election neared.

He also wrote of similar concerns around Iran, saying that in October 2020, he was “more concerned that someone in the White House would … boost Trump’s ratings — by tasking the U.S. military to do something extraordinary.”

That, Esper wrote, manifested itself through a number of summer 2020 interactions with Robert C. O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser.

“O’Brien was pushing for REDACTED and military action, with Pence subtly leaning in behind him, also seeming to support some type of action,” Esper wrote, referring to a July 2020 meeting. (Interestingly, the book, published by HarperCollins imprint William Morrow, contains a number of redactions.)

“The president has an appetite to do something,” O’Brien purportedly told Esper.

Later, Milley relayed to Esper what the plan was: Trump “wanted to strike a senior Iranian military officer who was operating outside of Iran.” Esper wrote that the desire for action seemed to have fizzled as the election neared.

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