Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper spoke to Jonathan Karl about his final months at the Pentagon.
Esper said he sought to stop Trump from using the military against Americans around Election Day.
He also thought he would be fired after contradicting Trump over the Insurrection Act in June 2020.
As President Donald Trump’s secretary of defense at the time of the 2020 presidential election, Mark Esper spent his final months in the administration working to make sure that Trump did not use the country’s armed forces against its own citizens.
That is according to ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl who talked to Esper for his forthcoming book, “Betrayal: The Final Act of the Trump Show,” a copy of which was obtained by Insider in advance of its Tuesday release.
“His goal, he told me, was to prevent the use of the military against American citizens during ‘the days before, the day of, and the days after the election,'” Karl wrote, quoting Esper.
Esper’s efforts are consistent with more public actions taken in summer 2020, when there were serious concerns Trump would use the military to respond to nationwide unrest following the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
Trump suggested he would use the Insurrection Act to send active-duty military personnel to respond to protests in a tough speech in the Rose Garden on June 1, 2020, saying if state or local officials failed to protect their communities “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
The 214-year-old Insurrection Act is an exception to the Posse Comitatus Act barring federal troops from engaging in domestic law enforcement operations. It permits the president to deploy US forces inside the US in response to domestic insurrections beyond the capabilities of regular law enforcement.
President George H.W. Bush took this drastic step in 1992, deploying roughly 4,000 Marines and soldiers to assist National Guardsmen to quell the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the acquittal of four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. One of the Marine commanders was John Kelly, who decades later would become Trump’s White House chief of staff until his removal in 2019.
Concerns that Trump would take such a step in response to ongoing protests were exacerbated by the movement of 1,600 active-duty soldiers to areas just outside in Washington, DC the next day. These troops were ultimately never deployed to the capital.
Two days after Trump made his speech at the White House warning that he might send in the military, Esper publicly addressed reporters at the Pentagon, telling them that “the option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”
“We are not in one of those situations now,” he said, adding, “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
Esper’s remarks, which broke with those of the president, infuriated the Trump White House and sparked speculation that Esper would be fired. The former defense secretary acknowledged to Karl that he even thought he’d be fired.
Asked about what might have happened had he and others, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, not pushed back, Esper told Karl that he thinks “we would have had active-duty troops on the streets, you know, with rifles and bayonets.”
“He wanted 10,000 active-duty troops in DC and then to prepare to use them across the country to deal with the violence and the protests,” he said, referring to Trump. “It was that simple.”
Esper told Karl that after that June incident, he was determined to remain in the job through election, which many anticipated might be contested, raising concerns about the military’s role.
In the weeks leading up to the election, as concerns grew, Milley stressed that there is “no role” for the military in presidential elections.
“We have established a very long 240-year tradition of an apolitical military that does not get involved in domestic politics,” he told NPR a few weeks before Election Day.
Esper held his position as the defense secretary through the election, but only just. He was “terminated” by the former president just two days after most major news organizations declared Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election.
Insider reached out to Esper about the reporting in Karl’s book but has not yet received a response.
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