Updated May 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Esper: We had to stop Trump team ideas for military action in Venezuela, Iran

A screenshot of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper during his interview on CBS' "60 Minutes," broadcast on Sunday.

A screenshot of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper during his interview on CBS' "60 Minutes," broadcast on Sunday. Photo: CBS

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS in an interview broadcast Sunday he helped prevent a series of "dangerous things that could have taken the country in a dark direction" during his time in the Trump administration.

Driving the news: When CBS' Norah O'Donnell asked Esper during the "60 Minutes" interview for examples, he cited a proposal to "take military action against Venezuela," to "strike Iran" and, "at one point, somebody proposed we blockade Cuba."

Context: O'Donnell noted during the program that Ukraine was an "early source of tension" between Esper and then-President Trump.

  • Esper documents in his book, "A Sacred Oath," that two days after his 2019 Senate confirmation, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a "favor" during a phone call on aid to the country that ultimately led to Trump's first impeachment.
  • Esper agreed with O'Donnell that he had to keep pressing Trump to release $250 million in aid to Ukraine. "It would be an argument after an argument. And I'd have to say, "Look, Mr. President, at the end of the day, Congress appropriated. It's the law. We have to do it," he added.

Zoom in: Esper said such ideas would occur at various times, "certainly the last year of the administration."

  • "These ideas would happen, it seemed, every few weeks," Esper said. "Something like this would come up and we'd have to swat 'em down."
  • O'Donnell asked Esper, "Who's 'we had to swat 'em down'?"
  • "Mostly me," he replied. "I had good support from General Mark Milley."

The big picture: Esper's interview follows a series of revelatory claims he makes about his time in the Trump administration, including exploring the possibility of secretly launching missiles into Mexico and asking whether people protesting the death of George Floyd could be shot in the leg.

  • During his "60 Minutes" interview, Esper also said then-President Trump discussed sending 10,000 active duty troops to Washington, D.C., following a small fire at the historic St. John's Episcopal Church during racial injustice protests.
  • Trump denied this and several other claims made by Esper in a statement to CBS:

Worth noting: During his interview, Esper also described the performance of President Biden's administration in response to the Russian military invasion of Ukraine as "mixed."

  • "They had a shaky start," Esper said. "I would have never taken the military option off the table, for example. I don't understand the reluctance to provide the Ukrainians with MiGs," he continued, in reference to fighter jets.
  • "But since then, it's picked up. I think we're now flowing more supplies and material and weapons into Ukraine," he added. "I think they've done a good job of bringing the allies along, which is important."
  • Esper also praised Congress for being unified in its support for Ukraine. "And in some ways, they've led the administration," he said. "So it's good to see now Congress and the executive branch acting together, reasonably aligned, to help the Ukrainian people."
  • Representatives for the Pentagon did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment on Esper's remarks about Milley.
  • Representatives for the White House, State Department, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also did not respond to requests for comment.

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout

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