Esper: Trump asked about shooting protesters NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Mark Esper about his forthcoming book, "A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times."

Former Pentagon chief Esper says Trump asked about shooting protesters

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ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The Trump administration's former defense secretary, Mark Esper, has a new book out this week. It's called "A Sacred Oath: Memoirs Of A Secretary Of Defense During Extraordinary Times." He spoke with our co-host Michel Martin about the book. In it, Esper says that former President Trump asked him and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley about shooting protesters. This was in the summer of 2020 during a meeting about unrest that took place after the murder of George Floyd.

MARK ESPER: The meeting started off pretty loud. The president was enraged. He was very upset at what had been happening and had happened the night before. He was - he 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. And as we went back and forth, discussing a number of things to include the deployment of 10,000 active duty troops, as you mentioned, we reached that point in the conversation where he looked frankly at General Milley and said, can't you just shoot them in the legs or something? And it was not just a - it was a question in the form of a - or a suggestion in the form of a question. And we were just all taken aback at that moment as this issue just hung very heavily in the air.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: What was going through your mind?

ESPER: Look. I entered West Point at the age of 18, and so I had spent 21 years in uniform, both active duty and reserve, and then served in - you know, worked in other parts of the national security enterprise, if you will, for another 10 or so years. And so, of course, ingrained in me were the concepts of duty, honor, country, a professional ethic, the proper relationship between the military and civilian society. And as part and parcel of that, we - of course, we studied Kent State and past engagements such as that.

And so when this - when the president raised this, I mean, needless to say, we were shocked - at least I was shocked; I'll speak for myself - that this would even be suggested, let alone it be raised. How would you go about doing that? How - can't you just shoot them, if you will? And, again, I was taken aback. I know, since General Milley and I talked afterwards, so was he - just shocked by the whole idea. And this was not normal behavior. And, of course, the context is the president is standing up, sitting down. He's red-faced. He's angry. He's yelling at us. He's swearing at us. And this goes on for 20, 25 minutes. And it's obviously the toughest meeting I probably ever had.

MARTIN: So you talk about how, in the book, that you and General Milley said to yourselves, you know, I'm this close to quitting. And you talk extensively in the book about that dilemma. You're not the only member of that administration who had that conversation with himself or with others close to him, people who shared his or her sense of professional ethics. So, you know, obviously, you want people to read the book. But as briefly as you can, why didn't you? I mean, why did you stick around, and why did so many others?

ESPER: At the end of the day, after talking to my wife, to my predecessors in previous administration, I came down to two things. A, 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, if you will, who would do exactly what he wanted. And so I thought the righter thing to do, the greater good, my duty was to stay and serve the country and not what might make me feel good in the moment and just walk away.

MARTIN: Do you still feel that way?

ESPER: I do. In retrospect, I feel even better about the decision because I was able to accomplish a lot of good things within the department to improve our military for the next 10, 20, 30 years. But I was also able to stop some bad things from happening and to get us to the election because at the end of the day, as I write in the book, I had a strategy, and my game plan was get to the election. I felt that I had done my duty, that I had served the country and not the president and not the party and not a philosophy but the country. And I got the DOD through intact. And we did the right thing.

MARTIN: Did you get it through intact, though? I mean, a number of people look at January 6, and you were gone by then. But...

ESPER: Right.

MARTIN: We know for a fact that there were veterans of the armed forces who attacked the Capitol on the 6. We know for a fact that some extremists and white supremacist groups are actively recruiting from within the ranks. And there's still a question about why the National Guard wasn't called out sooner, and there's still a question about whether there were people within the Pentagon who kept the National Guard from being called in a timely fashion because, of course, for people who don't live in it understand, you know, the District of Columbia is not a state and has some of the functions of a state.

But the mayor does not have the authority to call the National Guard in the District of Columbia as governors do. There's still a question about - within the Pentagon, was there - were there forces there that kept that from happening and allowed that whole event to unfold the way we all know that it did?

ESPER: Well, I think I am convinced that, in terms of DOD as an institution, during my tenure, we did prevent any permanent damage, if you will, from political influence or whatnot. So I'm very confident about that. With regard to January 6, you know, it was a terrible, tragic day. And look. I worked in the Capitol. I worked in Congress, and it really hit me hard. And - but look. I have a lot of faith in General Mark Milley, the Army secretary. I worked with him for three years. We got to wait to see what the January 6 committee report lays out. But I'm confident that those men did their duty.

And, you know, recently, because I also spoke at the January 6 committee, a document was shared with me. It was a DOD report where some of the same things were stated - that the DOD not drag its feet, if you will, or play any games when it came to delaying the movement of the guard. Look. It's tough to get the guard moving in a timely manner. It's tough to get any military unit moving in a timely manner. And I think we all wish that they had been there sooner. But that's not how the events played out that day. But look. I think we should all withhold judgment to see what the final report of the January 6 committee says.

MARTIN: There are those who - I mean, the book is just coming out. But there are some who have heard some of the top lines that have been released or leaked and some of the comments that I've seen already, which is, this is another former top official who saw these things going on, who should have said something sooner and didn't and saved all this for a book deal. How do you respond to that?

ESPER: 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'm 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.

It gets back to - you need good people to serve. And you can't sit from the sidelines and say that every time something bad happens or a president does something, like, that you don't like that people should immediately resign in protest because that's just not how it works. And what you end up with is a worse situation. And that was the question I struggled with for many, many months. Is it better off for the country if I stay or if I go? 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.

FLORIDO: That was former Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaking with our colleague Michel Martin. Esper's new book, "A Sacred Oath: Memoirs Of A Secretary Of Defense During Extraordinary Times," is out tomorrow.

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