Esper reignites debate over speaking out against Trump
Revelations in former Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s new book have reignited the debate over whether officials under former President Trump should have told their stories sooner, while he was still in office.
Excerpts from Esper’s book, published last week, included a series of eye-popping revelations on what he describes as “his tumultuous tenure” in Trump’s administration.
The former Pentagon chief has heavily criticized his former boss while promoting the book, even going as far to call him a threat to democracy.
As Trump, the former commander in chief, weighs another bid for the White House in 2024, speaking out against him isn’t an easy decision, said Miles Taylor, a former Homeland Security official who notably penned an op-ed for The New York Times criticizing the administration in 2018.
“It’s a very difficult decision whenever you decide to go out there — to completely blow up your life to criticize someone who is so famously vindictive,” he said of Trump.
“This is the type of guy who doesn’t just criticize you after you criticize him. He makes it his mission to destroy your life,” he continued. “And so, you go into it knowing you’re going to be taking on the biggest bully in America, if not the biggest bully in the world.”
Esper served as Defense Secretary from June 2019 until Trump abruptly fired him in November 2020, days after the presidential election. He was serving in an acting capacity after Patrick Shanahan, who had also been an acting Pentagon chief, withdrew from the role.
Before becoming Defense chief, Esper served as secretary of the Army following longtime work on Capitol Hill and overseeing government relations for Raytheon. Prior to his firing, the then-Pentagon chief had a notable break with Trump when he opposed deploying military forces to control riots in American cities.
Esper accuses the former president in his book of everything from wanting to shoot protesters in June 2020 to discussing the reinstatement of retired Navy admirals in order to court-martial them for criticizing him.
He also said Trump asked about firing missiles into Mexico to combat drug cartels, and that he and other officials had to head off various “outlandish” foreign policy proposals from Trump.
Esper’s revelations have people questioning why he waited so long to speak out about his time in the administration.
Former Ambassador John Bolton, who served as Trump’s national security adviser from March 2018 until he was fired in September 2019, told The Hill that there wasn’t much value in Esper quitting the administration and then holding a press conference, which he said would have been a “one-day story.”
“When you write a book, by definition, you can tell the whole story, give context to it, give history to it, give background to it,” said Bolton, who published his own book last year on his time working for Trump.
“And then, you know, the reading public can make up its mind whether they agree with you, agree with Trump, agree with something else,” he added.
Alyssa Farah, who was Esper’s top Pentagon spokeswoman before working for Trump as white house communications director, defended Esper in an exchange on “The View” with co-hosts Sunny Hostin and Joy Behar.
Hostin deemed Esper’s decision to come out now as a “cowardly action.”
“I’m tired of this ridiculous apology tour,” Hostin told Farah. “I’m sorry, Alyssa, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of people now coming out and trying to sell a book.”
Esper’s predecessor, James Mattis, submitted his resignation letter in 2018, acknowledging that he and Trump weren’t aligned on a variety of issues.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” Mattis said at the time.
While Taylor said he was grateful that Esper was overseeing the Pentagon before the 2020 election, he said he wished that anyone who was fired had spoken up sooner.
“After the election, I do wish that anyone who had been fired from the administration — and anyone who was already gone — had at a minimum come out publicly against Trump’s efforts to steal the election, flag that national security worries and certainly repudiate what happened on Jan. 6,” Taylor said.
Esper’s revelations come amid high-stakes speculation over whether Trump will run for president again in 2024.
Bolton, who now runs his own political action committee, told The Hill that he doesn’t think Trump will run again, but would rather be a kingmaker in the nomination fight.
“He’ll certainly not say he’s not a candidate until the very last minute because he doesn’t want to turn the spotlight off,” Bolton said. “But ultimately, I don’t think he’ll run.”
Veteran GOP strategist Douglas Heye told The Hill that Esper’s revelations would not impact the former president if he did run, because people’s minds are already made up about him.
“There’s nothing in this that changes the mind of, you know, a Trump base supporter, they are there for life,” Heye said. “There’s nobody enough on the fence on Donald Trump that this is then going to be, you know, why they think negatively.”
Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, agrees that Esper’s book wouldn’t impact those who already have a firm opinion on Trump.
“People have an amazing ability to block out anything that contradicts what they already believe,” Sabato said. “All you can do is give people the facts. And if they choose to ignore the facts, in a democracy, there’s very little you can do about it.”