You could write a book about Donald Trump’s antic-filled presidency, and Mark Esper has.
Esper, a native of Uniontown who served as Trump’s secretary of defense for 18 torturous months, writes in his book, “A Sacred Oath,” that only his training at West Point (which followed his graduation from Laurel Highlands) allowed him to “stand up” to Trump and thus save the country from one crackpot scheme after another.
In the book’s opening pages, Esper expresses his disdain for the former president. He writes that President Trump “undermined our nation’s institutions and traditions, had little respect for the truth or propriety, and put himself above everything else.
“The academy’s – that is, West Point’s – “purpose of developing ‘leaders of character’ who value integrity, put country and mission first, and, as the Cadet Prayer asked God to do – ‘make us choose the harder right than the easier wrong’ – all ran counter to Donald J. Trump’s way of doing business.”
The subtitle of “A Sacred Oath is Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times.”
That it was.
Esper says Trump suggested the U.S. withdraw its troops from South Korea and shutter every American diplomatic and military outpost on the continent of Africa. “Shut down the embassies in Africa,” Esper quotes Trump as saying.
Esper said the idea of doing either appalled him. The presence of American troops in South Korea serves as a bulwark against aggression by the North Koreans. They also sooth the nerves of the Japanese, jittery about their neighbors, North Korea and China, both of which are armed with nuclear weapons.
As for withdrawing lock, stock and barrel from all of Africa, that’s certifiably looney.
In November 2019, Trump proposed that the U.S. label Mexican drug cartels “foreign terrorist organizations.” Mexican government officials were alarmed, believing the designation would open the door to all sorts of U.S. mischief. Their concerns were prescient, Esper writes.
Twice the following summer Trump raised the idea of firing missiles into Mexico in an attempt to shut down drug labs.
“If I had not seen the look on the president’s face, I would have thought it was all a joke,” Esper writes.
The president told Esper no one would be the wiser if the U.S. undertook a missile strike against its southern neighbor, a major trading partner and ally.
“This was not rational thinking,” Esper says in his book. “It underscored in my mind how important it was for me to stay in my post.
“What if another secretary of defense went along with this? Lord knows, there were plenty of people in the mix who thought the president’s outlandish ideas made sense. He had surrounded himself with staff who would amplify his ideas or come up with their own preposterous ones.”
According to Esper, the “craziness” inside the White House grew worse as summer turned to fall and the approach of Election Day 2020.
Trump would fixate on small matters to the exclusion of bigger ones. One of these was the design of Navy ships, specifically the USS Ford-class. On multiple occasions, Pentagon “ship experts” huddled at the White House with Trump.
Esper explains, “The most important thing always seemed to be about the image and ‘the look,’ as he put it.... It was such a waste of time.”
Trump was all over the place. Alone with the president, things went well. Trump was attentive and asked questions, Esper says. In crowded meetings, it was showtime. Trump “relished the drama and the display of holding court and pitting people against one another.”
On the use of military force, Esper writes, Trump swayed “back and forth like a pendulum, though even a pendulum has some predictability. The president rarely gave us much at all.”
According to Esper, the president lied to members of Congress about the number of ISIS fighters who had escaped from prison in civil war-torn Syria, following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria and the intervention of Russia on the side of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Most escapees had been recaptured, Trump falsely told lawmakers. “I have special intelligence; that’s how I know,” he said.
On another occasion, he screamed expletives at Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before casting an accusing eye at Vice President Mike Pence.
But it was Donald Trump who lacked staying power, who lacked courage and conviction, Esper writes. “He mused. He suggested. He complained. He fumed. It was like he didn’t want to own a decision.”
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at email@example.com.