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Former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said President Donald Trump inquired about shooting protesters amid the unrest that took place after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. He recounts that incident, and many others, in a wide-ranging interview with NPR’s Michel Martin on All Things Considered.
Esper said he stayed in the administration because he worried that if he left, the president would more easily implement some of his “dangerous ideas.”
The former Defense chief also said he hopes Trump does not seek the presidency in 2024.
“We need leaders of integrity and character, and we need leaders who will bring people together and reach across the aisle and do what’s best for the country. And Donald Trump doesn’t meet the mark for me on any of those issues.”
Esper said he and other top officials were caught off guard by Trump’s reaction to the unrest in the summer of 2020.
“The president was enraged,” Esper recalled. “I thought that the protests made the country look weak, made us look weak and ‘us’ meant him. And he wanted to do something about it.
“We reached that point in the conversation where he looked frankly at [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Gen. [Mark] Milley and said, ‘Can’t you just shoot them, just shoot them in the legs or something?’ … It was a suggestion and a formal question. And we were just all taken aback at that moment as this issue just hung very heavily in the air.”
As a young Army captain in the mid-1990s, Esper said he saw the office occupied by the Defense secretary as hallowed ground, a place he hardly dared imagine himself. Yet, there he was 21 years later, serving as President Trump’s secretary of Defense; facing challenges he also never imagined.
He wrote about those challenges in a new book, A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times. In it, Esper describes Trump as a volatile, ill-informed leader obsessed with power and self image.
Esper also detailed in his book a campaign by the former president and his then-chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to deny a promotion to Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whose congressional testimony led to Trump’s first impeachment.
Vindman, a Ukraine expert and former official with the National Security Council, testified that he was present during a now-infamous phone call between the former president and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in which Trump tried to blackmail Zelenskyy for political dirt on Joe Biden and his family. That allegation helped ignite the impeachment effort against Trump.
Esper said he worries about the fallout from Trump’s political tactics.
“It became much more than Alexander Vindman at that point when you have this behavior going on. It became a test of, were we going to allow political influence in our promotion systems and in how we assign people? And that’s a hard red line for me and others in the Pentagon that we weren’t going to allow that to happen, let alone a vendetta against a single individual who was doing the right thing.”
This interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.
When asked whether he thinks a prolonged conflict in Ukraine could weaken the NATO alliance:
I think [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is more committed to what he’s doing in Ukraine than I’m afraid we [NATO nations] may be in the long run to standing up to Putin, and maybe he’s calculating on that. But I also believe that the Ukrainians are far more committed to defending their country than Putin estimated. It’s a major miscalculation, and one we should understand in the context of the fact that he invaded Georgia in 2008 and he invaded Ukraine in 2014. And in both cases, he really didn’t get a stiff response from the West. It’s not just Russia we have to worry about. Keep in mind that China is watching, too, and they are gauging Western resolve.
On whether the US should be doing more to support Ukraine:
I said this [on] Day One of the invasion: We should be putting every possible sanction we can on the Russians. We should be providing the Ukrainians with all the equipment they’re asking for. But we have to also continue to unify our Western allies. We now have two countries — Sweden and Finland — who are seeking NATO’s membership or who we expect will seek NATO membership. That will strengthen NATO. And I think we should bring them in quickly and bring the umbrella of Article five protection under them equally as quickly.
On why he decided to stay in the Trump administration, despite wanting to leave:
I wrestled with this a lot. And at the end of the day, [it] came down to two things: If I left, I was very concerned about what would happen and would some of these dangerous ideas be implemented? And secondly, if I left, who would be who would replace me? And I was fairly confident that the president would replace me with an uber loyalist, who would do exactly what he wanted. And so I thought the right thing to do, the greater good my duty was to stay and serve the country.
On how he responds to critics who say he saved troubling, behind-the-scenes details of the Trump administration for a book deal:
I would say that I saw these things happen and did something. I stayed in the fight, in the game, and managed to avoid bad things happening. If you read the book, you’ll see any number of cases where I was able to steer off or push back bad things from happening that I am convinced that if I had left, if I had resigned on the spot in protest – which by the way, would have been a whole lot better for me personally – I truly believe that these bad things would have happened. And my bottom line was I could do more good for the country, for the American people, if I stayed rather than if I walked away, particularly since I was so confident that President Trump would put in an uber loyalist who would do exactly what he wanted to do.”
Kira Wakeam and Gabriel Sanchez produced this story for broadcast.