The following is a transcript of an interview with former Defense Secretary Mark Esper that aired Sunday, May 15, 2022, on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is out with a new book called A Sacred Oath, which chronicles his time in the Trump administration. Mr. Secretary, welcome back to Face the Nation.
FORMER SECRETARY MARK ESPER: Margaret, great to be with you.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to talk to you about a number of things. But you did say recently that after the events of January 6, which took place when you were out of office, that you now consider President Trump a threat to democracy. The committee that’s investigating January 6 is about to begin public hearings, and they’ve said they have in their possession- possession a draft executive order that would have had the then defense secretary seize voting machines and that the Department of Justice and the Pentagon would then be involved somehow in stopping the transfer of power. Do you think it’s important for that committee to lay out these facts to the public?
FMR. SEC. ESPER: Well, first, let me extend my condolences, by the way, to the families and friends of those tragically murdered yesterday in Buffalo. But to your question, yes, I think the January 6 committee needs to get to the bottom of the truth of what happened on January 6, the events leading up to it and understand it. So we- there is a degree of kind of accountability. And second, we have lessons learned to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s absolutely important.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But it’s- I mean, just even laying that out to you, it is kind of astounding to hear. And in your book, you write, General Milley actually had an agreement with the other members of the Joint Chiefs that the lead military commanders in the country to all resign if President Trump tried to use the military to stop the transfer of power. You write about personally being concerned that that’s what he was trying to do. So you saw evidence or you had good reason to believe there was an attempt here to basically stage a coup?
FMR. SEC. ESPER: I had a lot of concern about what might or might not happen in the months leading up to the election. Right? There was talk about conducting strikes against- military strikes against- against other countries. The president through the summer was talking about sending troops into Seattle and Portland. And I write about in the final days, I had this private meeting with the head of the National Guard and General Milley. And I talk about what might or might not happen the day after the election, concerned that there may be the use of the military somehow to influence the outcome. And look, I- there’s been a lot of criticism about why I didn’t speak up. It’s because I wanted to be there on the spot if any of these things happened to be the circuit breaker, because the only two people in the United States that can deploy troops, U.S. military troops, are the president and the secretary of defense. And I was in that pivotal position to act if I thought something was, you know–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Mm-Hmm.
FMR. SEC. ESPER: –outlandish, irresponsible or would affect the institution of DOD or our country. That’s what it came down to for me.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So that’s why you didn’t resign, but why didn’t you speak out as soon as you left office? I know you started writing the book within months–
FMR. SEC. ESPER: Yeah.
MARGARET BRENNAN: –but why didn’t you speak publicly about all of this?
FMR. SEC. ESPER: Well, the election was over. I think, like many of us, I figured the president would- would challenge the election like others have done in the past. And after a few weeks, it would be over and we’d have a peaceful transition of power.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But he did. There was an impeachment hearing about what happened with January 6–
FMR. SEC. ESPER: Sure.
MARGARET BRENNAN: –and about whether there were attempts to stop the peaceful transfer of power. You’re saying you actually were worried about that yourself?
FMR. SEC. ESPER: Well, I was concerned. You know, you always have to think through alternative scenarios. What might or might not happen, and I would have spoken out if- if called for to do it. I said on another network, I would have certainly spoken out if he had won the election, but he didn’t. And at that point in time, you know, I was patiently waiting to see what would happen, make sure that the peaceful transfer of power happened. As you know, I joined my other- the living secretaries of defense wrote an op ed on January 3rd, three days prior to the transition, expressing our concern about the peaceful handover of power and warning the Pentagon, if you will, about the- the importance of them doing their duty.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You talk about and have spoken quite a lot this past week about the events in Lafayette Square.
FMR. SEC. ESPER: Right.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And it’s an important bit of the public record. You were in the Oval Office with the president and he spoke about a very specific number, 10,000 of active duty troops potentially being sent into the streets of Washington, D.C.. I want to play a clip for you here because I asked the then attorney general, Bill Barr, about exactly that.[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
MARGARET BRENNAN [VIDEO CLIP]: A senior administration official told our CBS’s David Martin that in a meeting at the White House on Monday morning, the president demanded that 10,000 active duty troops be ordered into American streets. Is that accurate?
FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL BILL BARR [VIDEO CLIP]: No, it’s completely false. That’s completely false. Sunday night–
MARGARET BRENNAN [VIDEO CLIP]: The president did not demand that?
FMR. U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL BARR [VIDEO CLIP]: No, he did not demand that.[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
MARGARET BRENNAN: Why do you seem to have different recollections?
FMR. SEC. ESPER: I don’t know. You know, I wrote about this in my book that Bill Barr and I have different recollections. Of course, if you go through my story, you’ll understand that the president calls over to the Pentagon earlier that morning and talks about 10,000 troops. That’s when I’m first made aware of this request. And look, I don’t know why we have different recollections. I think in all these cases, people hear or see different things. But I’m 110% confident of what the president was seeking that morning.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The former attorney general said it was completely false. Do you think that was an effort to deliberately mislead the public?
FMR. SEC. ESPER: I don’t know. Again, people have different recollections. People have asked me about things that I simply can’t recall. All I know is the way we diffuse this is Bill Barr to his credit, -cause he was a good partner on this stuff, put forward 5,000 law enforcement officers, and I put forward up to 5,000 National Guard to take care of this. I mean, do the math. 5,000 and 5,000–
MARGARET BRENNAN: –You’re trying–
FMR. SEC. ESPER: in my mind–
MARGARET BRENNAN: to retrofit this 10,000 arbitrary number.
FMR. SEC. ESPER: Well, I’m- I’m trying to kind of give him his 10,000 without giving him 10,000 active duty troops. And we pulled it off. And thank goodness it was- it was the way to kind of get that down and get out of the room and get on with what we needed to do.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Are you concerned that if the former president stands for election, that he will surround himself with people who you are deeply critical of, who didn’t try to short circuit? I mean, you were very critical of Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser. You write about the chief of staff, Mark Meadows. You talk about Stephen Miller, all people who were egging on some of these instincts.
FMR. SEC. ESPER: Yeah, absolutely, he will. He figured this out in 2020 after he beat impeachment. He talks about it. I describe this moment in the book where he thinks about the people he should put into office. And so, yes, that is a concern of mine if he runs and is re-elected. Absolutely.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But should any of those people have any proximity to public office right now?
FMR. SEC. ESPER: I don’t think so, but that’s my opinion.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, their names that we’re watching and we will continue to cover. Mark Esper, a lot more in this book. It is worth reading. Thank you. We will be right back.