By Max Boot [November 15, 2021]
I want to apologize to Mark T. Esper, former president Donald Trump’s fourth and second-to-last defense secretary. I may have been too harsh on the man who became known as “Yesper” for accommodating Trump. As I noted in March: “He did not vocally protest pardons for war criminals, the use of the defense budget to build a border wall or the withdrawal of troops from Germany.” But now that we have seen fresh evidence of how much Trump and his henchmen loathed Esper, he is rising in my estimation.
That evidence comes courtesy of ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl, who has unearthed a memorandum from Johnny McEntee, Trump’s director of presidential personnel, listing 14 reasons for ousting Esper. That document was dated Oct. 19, 2020. Three weeks later Esper was fired by a Trump tweet.
The very premise of McEntee’s memo was both sinister and ludicrous — a 30-year-old of no professional or intellectual distinction, whose path to power was carrying Trump’s bags, was making the case for getting rid of a senior Cabinet officer for insufficient loyalty to the president. This revealing and chilling document deserves to be read not as a historical curiosity but as a terrible portent of what could be in store if Trump wins another term. He appears determined to turn the military into his personal goon squad.
One of McEntee’s first complaints was that Esper had “approved the promotion of Lt. Col. [Alexander] Vindman, the start [sic] witness in the sham impeachment inquiry, who told Congress that the President’s call with Ukraine ‘undermined U.S. national security.’” No one has challenged the veracity of Vindman’s testimony, which was delivered under oath. Yet Trump, acting through McEntee, seemed intent on carrying out what Vindman described in a Post op-ed as “a campaign of bullying, intimidation and retaliation” for daring to tell the truth.
The next item in the indictment of Esper: “Publicly opposed the President’s direction to utilize American force to put down riots just outside the White House.” This was a reference to Esper’s brave decision in June 2020 to resist Trump’s desires to deploy active-duty troops to suppress Black Lives Matter protests.
Esper acted after he and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been lured by Trump into a bizarre photo op in Lafayette Square, which been cleared by force of peaceful protesters. Milley subsequently apologized and reminded military personnel that they are pledged to defend the Constitution, including “the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.” This was presumably what sparked another of McEntee’s grievances against Esper: “Has failed to exercise oversight of the Joint Staff.”
McEntee further indicted Esper for acting to remove a symbol of racism and sedition — the Confederate flag — from military installations. He was upset, moreover, that the defense secretary had ruled out attacks “on cultural sites in Iran if the conflict escalated, despite the President wanting to keep that option open.” Attacking cultural sites would have been a war crime — but, according to McEntee, Esper should have been willing to commit a war crime at Trump’s direction.
McEntee also criticized Esper for spending too much time focused on competition with Russia. Left unstated was that Trump seems to hero-worship Russian President Vladimir Putin, who helped him win the 2016 election. Esper’s other transgressions of Trumpism included insufficient support for Trump’s capricious and discriminatory “transgender ban”; contradicting “the President in SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s case” (Trump reversed Gallagher’s demotion despite accusations he had committed war crimes); and dissenting from “the President’s decision to withdraw troops from Germany.” (McEntee gave a new Pentagon appointee working for Esper’s replacement, Christopher Miller, an isolationist to-do list that consisted of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Germany.)
The most damning and telling grievance against Esper was near the bottom of this pathetic document: “When he assumed his role, he vowed to be apolitical.” Normally being apolitical is a sine qua non for leading the armed forces. That’s why President Biden chose retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary and President Barack Obama decided to keep Republican Robert M. Gates in the post. But Trump tried to destroy the professional, apolitical ethos of the armed forces — and if given the opportunity, he will almost certainly do so again.
Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker recounted in their book “I Alone Can Fix It” Milley’s well-grounded worries after the election about Trump’s mounting a coup. “They may try, but they’re not going to f—ing succeed,” the general reportedly told a friend. “You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with guns.”
Well, the next time around, Trump would want to ensure that the “guys with guns” are on his side. If he wins a second term, Trump’s next defense secretary (Johnny McEntee perhaps?) would almost certainly be somebody more devoted to him than to the Constitution. For anyone concerned about the future of U.S. democracy, that should be a cause of considerable alarm at a time when Trump and Biden are running almost neck and neck in polling matchups.
Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”