Trump Pondered Mexico Missile Attack, Shooting BLM Protesters

The 45th President was a psychopath.

Regular readers will recall that former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had to sue the Pentagon to get clearance to publish his memoirs. The Department relented in February and the book is about to hit the streets. Naturally, some of the juiciest bits are already hitting the press.

Maggie Haberman for the NYT (“Trump Proposed Launching Missiles Into Mexico to ‘Destroy the Drug Labs,’ Esper Says“):

President Donald J. Trump in 2020 asked Mark T. Esper, his defense secretary, about the possibility of launching missiles into Mexico to “destroy the drug labs” and wipe out the cartels, maintaining that the United States’ involvement in a strike against its southern neighbor could be kept secret, Mr. Esper recounts in his upcoming memoir.

Those remarkable discussions were among several moments that Mr. Esper described in the book, “A Sacred Oath,” as leaving him all but speechless when he served the 45th president.

As noted several times, Esper is one of the few Trump appointees who I believed not only highly competent at his job but managed to maintain his integrity. But, as with his predecessor Bob Gates, I cringe at titling one’s tell-all book A Sacred Oath or Duty. It’s not only smarmy and self-serving but suggests that they were somehow alone. Granting that SECDEF holds an office of enormous responsibility, all federal employees take the same* oath and are expected to do their duty.

Obviously, though, the specific instances of Trump’s wild proposals are more interesting. We’ll get to them shortly.

Mr. Esper, the last Senate-confirmed defense secretary under Mr. Trump, also had concerns about speculation that the president might misuse the military around Election Day by, for instance, having soldiers seize ballot boxes. He warned subordinates to be on alert for unusual calls from the White House in the lead-up to the election.

The book, to be published on Tuesday, offers a stunningly candid perspective from a former defense secretary, and it illuminates key episodes from the Trump presidency, including some that were unknown or underexplored.

“I felt like I was writing for history and for the American people,” said Mr. Esper, who underwent the standard Pentagon security clearance process to check for classified information. He also sent his writing to more than two dozen four-star generals, some cabinet members and others to weigh in on accuracy and fairness.

That’s an unusual step and, were the timing different, I would object to a former SECDEF having sitting four-stars vet a book that’s going to be viewed through a hyper-partisan lens. Since the book was written after Trump was replaced as President, however, I think it a reasonable step.

Pressed on his view of Mr. Trump, Mr. Esper — who strained throughout the book to be fair to the man who fired him while also calling out his increasingly erratic behavior after his first impeachment trial ended in February 2020 — said carefully but bluntly, “He is an unprincipled person who, given his self-interest, should not be in the position of public service.”

Mr. Esper describes an administration completely overtaken by concerns about Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, with every decision tethered to that objective. He writes that he could have resigned, and weighed the idea several times, but that he believed the president was surrounded by so many yes-men and people whispering dangerous ideas to him that a loyalist would have been put in Mr. Esper’s place. The real act of service, he decided, was staying in his post to ensure that such things did not come to pass.

This is a dilemma that has been the subject of military ethics classes at least since I was a freshman cadet nearly forty years ago. I suspect Esper had those classes two years earlier. Usually, the discussion is about lawful orders that you believe unwise and usually the giver is a senior uniformed officer, not the Commander-in-Chief. But’s the same problem: is the greater service in staying to carry out the order—once your objections have been rebuffed—or to resign in protest? There is no right answer to the question.

One such idea emerged from Mr. Trump, who was unhappy about the constant flow of drugs across the southern border, during the summer of 2020. Mr. Trump asked Mr. Esper at least twice if the military could “shoot missiles into Mexico to destroy the drug labs.”

“They don’t have control of their own country,” Mr. Esper recounts Mr. Trump saying.

When Mr. Esper raised various objections, Mr. Trump said that “we could just shoot some Patriot missiles and take out the labs, quietly,” adding that “no one would know it was us.” Mr. Trump said he would just say that the United States had not conducted the strike, Mr. Esper recounts, writing that he would have thought it was a joke had he not been staring Mr. Trump in the face.

That’s a nutty idea. And, rather obviously, involves multiple criminal acts. But, ultimately, it was the half-assed musing Trump was known for and not an order. As with most—bad, sadly, not all—of his half-assed ideas, Trump lost interest and moved on when his people didn’t hop to.

In Mr. Esper’s telling, Mr. Trump seemed more emboldened, and more erratic, after he was acquitted in his first impeachment trial. Mr. Esper writes that personnel choices reflected that reality, as Mr. Trump tried to tighten his grip on the executive branch with demands of personal loyalty.

The front-pagers and commenters at OTB predicted as much in real time. Having demonstrated that Republican Senators would stand behind him no matter what, he had impunity.

Among Mr. Trump’s desires was to put 10,000 active-duty troops on the streets of Washington on June 1, 2020, after large protests against police brutality erupted following the police killing of George Floyd. Mr. Trump asked Mr. Esper about the demonstrators, “Can’t you just shoot them?”

Again, these are the ravings of a mad man. But, once again, he was rebuffed and didn’t insist.

Mr. Esper describes one episode nearly a month earlier during which Mr. Trump, whose re-election prospects were reshaped by his repeated bungling of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, behaved so erratically at a May 9 meeting about China with the Joint Chiefs of Staff that one officer grew alarmed. The unidentified officer confided to Mr. Esper months later that the meeting led him to research the 25th Amendment, under which the vice president and members of the cabinet can remove a president from office, to see what was required and under what circumstances it might be used.

Mr. Esper writes that he never believed Mr. Trump’s conduct rose to the level of needing to invoke the 25th Amendment. He also strains to give Mr. Trump credit where he thinks he deserves it. Nonetheless, Mr. Esper paints a portrait of someone not in control of his emotions or his thought process throughout 2020.

We’ve had a lot of conversations here about just that topic. I would have been happy for his team to have removed him under the 25th Amendment process but am doubtful that “he’s a nut” is actually a viable standard for invoking it. His erratic nature may have gotten worse during his tenure but was plainly manifest during the 2015-2016 campaign. It was among many reasons that there was a #NeverTrump movement, particularly among Republican national security professionals and why so many of us ultimately left** the party.

Mr. Esper singles out officials whom he considered erratic or dangerous influences on Mr. Trump, with the policy adviser Stephen Miller near the top of the list. He recounts that Mr. Miller proposed sending 250,000 troops to the southern border, claiming that a large caravan of migrants was en route. “The U.S. armed forces don’t have 250,000 troops to send to the border for such nonsense,” Mr. Esper writes that he responded.

In October 2019, after members of the national security team assembled in the Situation Room to watch a feed of the raid that killed the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Mr. Miller proposed securing Mr. al-Baghdadi’s head, dipping it in pig’s blood and parading it around to warn other terrorists, Mr. Esper writes. That would be a “war crime,” Mr. Esper shot back.

Mr. Miller flatly denied the episode and called Mr. Esper “a moron.”

I believe Mr. Esper and invoke the double dumbass on Mr. Miller.

Mr. Esper also viewed Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s final White House chief of staff, as a huge problem for the administration and the national security team in particular. Mr. Meadows often threw the president’s name around when barking orders, but Mr. Esper makes clear that he often was not certain whether Mr. Meadows was communicating what Mr. Trump wanted or what Mr. Meadows wanted.

This is not surprising, least which because it’s certainly not peculiar to Meadows, the Trump administration, or even government service. Lots of underlings claim to speak for their bosses to get their way.

He also writes about repeated clashes with Robert C. O’Brien, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser in the final year, describing Mr. O’Brien as advocating a bellicose approach to Iran without considering the potential fallout.

Mr. O’Brien said he was “surprised and disappointed” by Mr. Esper’s comments.

Advocating a bellicose approach to Iran (or various other problems) without considering the potential fallout is, alas, not without precedent.

________________

*The President and enlisted members of the Armed Forces take different variants but the gist is the same.

**In my own case, having never lived in a party registration state, it’s simply a matter of voting for the other party rather than any formal act.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, Policing, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jen says:

    Mr. Trump said that “we could just shoot some Patriot missiles and take out the labs, quietly,” adding that “no one would know it was us.”

    How did someone THIS STUPID get elected President? Missiles have trajectories. And component parts that show up. And about a million other ways to detect who shot what, from where.

    My god, Rex Tillerson is proven right again and again and again. This man is a f*&king moron.

    21
  2. drj says:

    Popehat captures my thoughts:

    Mark @EsperDoD realizing that the candy being served to a group children is laced with rat poison: “Wow, wait until I reveal this in my book.”

    As to the argument that Esper stuck around to prevent worse, if that is the case, the proper course of action would have been to immediately reveal everything at the end of Trump’s term, and speedily withdraw from public life – not to make money off it through a shitty book.

    Sometimes, patriotism requires sacrifice. And any “sacred oath” is to one’s country, not one’s bank account. It’s not that Esper couldn’t retire comfortably without turning the misfortune of the nation (and his role in it) into a money making scheme.

    20
  3. Scott F. says:

    The 45th President was a psychopath.

    Thanks to our electoral system and the depravity of the GOP, the 47th likely will be as well

    8
  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jen: How did someone THIS STUPID get elected President?

    Republicans and sociopaths (but I repeat myself) voted for him. And if nominated again in 2024, they will vote for him again.

    6
  5. Mu Yixiao says:

    I believe Mr. Esper and invoke the double dumbass on Mr. Miller.

    Hey now. Let’s not take things too far here.

    In all seriousness, though.. If this stuff is true, it’s scary, but not surprising (well… except for the notion that “nobody would know” is was us that sent missiles into Mexico). It quickly became obvious that Trump wanted to be a petty dictator, and his kissing up to Putin and Kim highlight that. What is surprising is that he did the opposite with Xi. Considering that Xi is actually successful at his authoritarian regime, and is doing so in a country with a healthy economy and world-wide interests, I would have thought Trump would have wanted to emulate that.

    Just goes to show how stupid he is.

    4
  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @drj: As to that,

    He also strains to give Mr. Trump credit where he thinks he deserves it.

    Why? Because he wants a future in Republican (non) governance and he knows what the party is.

    4
  7. Mikey says:

    Remember, Trump spoke with awe and praise of the Chinese government’s massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square. I have no doubt whatsoever he would absolutely love to do the same to protesters here.

    Thank goodness he is as stupid as he is evil.

    1
  8. Kathy says:

    @Jen:

    Oh, it’s worse than that. Benito suggested using Patriot missiles, which are surface to air missiles, not surface to surface. Does he think drug labs are carried in blimps or hang from hot air balloons?

    And people think this idiot is smart?

    10
  9. Scott says:

    @Jen: At the risk of being pedantic, Patriot missiles are surface to air. So unless the drugs were made in floating cities or dirigibles…

    3
  10. Scott says:

    @Kathy: We’re thinking alike.

    2
  11. gVOR08 says:

    @Mikey:

    Thank goodness he is as stupid as he is evil.

    Indeed. But echoing @OzarkHillbilly: Cruz, Hawley, DeSantis, Abbott, etc. are not stupid. And the GOPs have been implementing state level measures to make it easier for them to control election outcomes.

    2
  12. CSK says:

    Patriot missiles have 200 lb. warheads. They’re also used for anti-aircraft purposes, not for ground targets.

    But no matter, I suppose.

    1
  13. Kathy says:

    @Scott:
    @CSK:

    So you don’t think sending a tank regiment to meet a Russian fleet in the Atlantic is a good idea? Well, I guess we won’t be sending submarines to support the next invasion of a landlocked country then!

    1
  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy: And people think this idiot is smart?

    You don’t get to be on TV if you’re stoopid!

  15. Kathy says:

    @gVOR08:

    That is true but they may not have a mesmerizing lock on the GQP radical base, nor be capable of instituting a cult of personality. If they can’t, they’re open to criticism and attack by others in their party.

    If they can, then we’re screwed, and Canada would do well to acquire or develop nukes.

    2
  16. Jen says:

    @Kathy:
    @Scott:

    I didn’t even get that far…all that registered to me was the “shoot missiles, no one will know” stupidity.

    1
  17. @Jen: Plus, a Patriot would not be used for that kind of attack in any event.

  18. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: @Scott: @CSK: Y’all beat me by that much. Yes, be pedantic. A Tomahawk cruise missile would be more appropriate. “Patriot” was probably the only missile name he could remember.

    3
  19. MarkedMan says:

    Back when Trump was first nominated I said that after following him since the 80’s I had come to realize that the most importantly thing to know about him was that he was a moron. At the time, people thought I was being hyperbolic. Anyone still think that?

    3
  20. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I too have known about Trump since the eighties. I agreed with you in 2016. I agree with you now.

    2
  21. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    Well, “Patriot” is Trump’s favorite word to describe himself and his followers, so it follows, doesn’t it?

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MarkedMan: that after following him since the 80’s

    @CSK: I too have known about Trump since the eighties.

    Hopefully you guys have lives now. 😉

    2
  23. Kathy says:

    @gVOR08:

    Yeah, but that requires smart stupidity, not moronic stupidity.

    Smart stupidity would go something like this:

    “We send a few Los Angeles fast attack subs to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, and they launch a bunch of Tomahawks to take out the drug labs*. Since the attacks come from the middle of nowhere, no one can tell we did it!”

    This sounds both good and plausible. until you think a little and realize: 1) leftover missile debris can be identified, 2) if any missiles fail to detonate they can be more easily identified, 3) there’s no one but the US in the western hemisphere who could launch such an attack, 4) even if Russia or China, or even England or France, could stage something like this, why would they?, 5) if you claim someone stole your subs and missiles and did this, that would damage your country far, far more than any kind of drugs ever could dream of, 6) the same if you claim rogue Navy elements did it, assuming you found enough willing sacrificial goats.

    That’s just off the top of my head.

    BTW, this is on the same level of idiocy as painting red stars on F-22s and somehow bombing the crap out of Russia.

    * I doubt you can take out all “drug labs” in any case, or that they wouldn’t be replaced if they were taken down. Drugs are a high profit margin enterprise with really low capital investment requirements. A true form of capitalism and free enterprise.

    2
  24. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Living in the northeast as I do, it was impossible NOT to have heard all about Trump.

    1
  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: I can’t help but notice you did not answer my question. 🙂

    1
  26. gVOR08 says:

    @drj: GOPs are now running around saying 1/6 and all that went with it is just the same as Ds saying Trump was illegitimate. But this is what we meant by illegitimate, not that the election wasn’t legal, but that he was manifestly unqualified to hold the office. And everyone around him knew it. Some (Miller, Bannon, his kids, etc.) chose to use him to pursue their own agendas and fortunes but many, in government and in the press, knew what he was and that he was a threat to the nation, and to a man (and woman, Haberman) they bravely chose to hope someone else would deal with it. And worse, when Alexander Vindman handed them on a silver platter a chance to get rid of him, they didn’t have the guts to take it. Mitch McConnell is a bigger threat to the nation than Trump. If it weren’t for Moscow Mitch, we could have dealt with Trump.

    Maybe this whole Imperial Presidency, Unitary Executive thing wasn’t a good idea.

    6
  27. Joe says:

    @Scott F.:

    the 47th likely will be as well

    At least some people can claim to have been surprised by the behavior of the 45th President (I am looking at you, Susan Collins). For the 47th, it will be exactly who they voted for.

    2
  28. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    My life is rich and varied, thank you. 🙂

  29. Paine says:

    You know, if any Democratic president was this unhinged I would *want* the cabinet to invoke the 25th amendment. It’s called putting the country first.

    8
  30. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy:

    Drugs are a high profit margin enterprise with really low capital investment requirements.

    After we, at great loss of life, bombed the German ball bearing factories the Germans were forced to throw tarps over the holes in the roofs, stand the machines back upright, reconnect power, and make ball bearings. OK, half true, they did suffer some loss of production. But the strategic bombing campaign wasn’t nearly as effective as we hoped. And we never bombed the ball bearing factories in Sweden. What do you need for a drug lab? I don’t know, I never watched Breaking Bad. I imagine an empty building and a little equipment you can buy from lab and kitchen supply houses. Low capital indeed.

    And was Trump exploring ordering Esper to attack drug labs, or was he doing his Mafioso bit and trolling for a minion eager to take a hint and run with it?

  31. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    All the right wing nut jobs be, like, what’s wrong with hitting the cartels with missiles?

    1
  32. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:
  33. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK: Heard about him because after he burned through his father’s money he was considered essentially the clown of NY real estate. No one took him seriously but his marks.

  34. CSK says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    Junior has to be being deliberately obtuse here. No one could possibly be that inadvertently stupid.

    1
  35. Franklin says:

    @CSK: Details! (Waves hand dismissively)

  36. inhumans99 says:

    @Jen:

    Yup, I am not the biggest fan of the film, but the Tom Clancy film adaptation of Clear And Present Danger starring Harrison Ford does have one of what I consider to be one of the cooler scenes I have seen in a film, the scene where we are treated to the cartel guy using modern tech to forensically investigate the missile strike on a drug compound/cartel leaders home, and you get cutaways to Harrison Ford doing the same thing, but using more old fashioned methods (opening books, looking a paper copies of schematics, instead of relying on data returned from a computer, etc.).

    They both come to the same conclusion that it was a U.S. Missile that took out the compound. Fabulous scene in the film.

    2
  37. Beth says:

    I wonder if he also wanted to bomb the USPS considering how much drugs they deliver every day (thanks darkweb) or if he was just like, skim it.

  38. Sigh. If a person of Esper’s alleged stature really believes “[Trump] is an unprincipled person who, given his self-interest, should not be in the position of public service” then maybe trying “to give Mr. Trump credit where he thinks he deserves it” isn’t the right move.

    People who saw what Trump was need to speak out–more than just writing a book. People like Tillerson and Esper and others.

    6
  39. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK:

    No one could possibly be that inadvertently stupid.

    I don’t think you give proper credit to heredity. Or to the effect or of growing up surrounded by minions dedicated to flattering you. But yes, he has learned to play to the base.

    1
  40. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    Probably I did. But Junior certainly has learned to, ah, reframe the truth just like his old man.

  41. Kathy says:

    @Beth:

    Wasn’t DeJoy and attack on the Postal Service?

    1
  42. Beth says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    People who saw what Trump was need to speak out–more than just writing a book. People like Tillerson and Esper and others.

    Why? They are clearly comfortable with the end result of Trump-ism. They just don’t like the dirty bits of it.

    @Kathy:

    That’s true. I wonder how much drugs DeJoy skimmed out of the mail for his own purposes.

    2
  43. Kathy says:

    @gVOR08:

    You may have noticed I like airplanes and aviation. Combat aircraft are a big part of aviation, certainly of aviation history. I do know a bit about the strategic use of air power, and it’s clear it never has been a decisive component of any military conflict.

    It helps, but not decisively so. You need boots on the ground to hold on to territory.

    The curious thing is that the Allies tried it, after the nazis showed it didn’t work.

    Nukes, though, change things. Whether or not Japan surrendered due to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there’s no denying a country can nuke another out of existence.

  44. dazedandconfused says:

    There are many forms of intelligence, Trump is something of an idiot-savant. Could well go down in history as the greatest con man of all time. And he may well not understand himself how he did it. What The Rain Man was with numbers Trump is to BS.

    Esper seems like several others to me, who felt an understandable obligation to try to play as Trump’s Sancho Panza, or perhaps his Boo Boo Bear. Quite likely we owe these folks more than we will ever know.

    3