Mark Esper is a Washington insider who spent his whole career flying below the radar – until he became President Donald Trump’s second secretary of defense. A West Point graduate and paratrooper, Esper spent 10 years as a by-the-book Army officer. And when he left active duty, he moved through the revolving doors of think tank jobs, Capitol Hill & Pentagon staff positions, and defense lobbying. It all turned out to be boot camp for his assignment as defense secretary — and a face-off with Mr. Trump, whom he came to regard as a threat to American democracy. But we begin tonight with the former defense secretary’s thoughts on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Norah O’Donnell: Overall, how would you grade President Biden and his administration’s– performance in terms of Ukraine?
Mark Esper: It’s mixed. They had a shaky start. I would’ve never taken the military option off the table, for example. I don’t understand the reluctance to provide– the Ukrainians with MiGs
Norah O’Donnell: Fighter jets.
Mark Esper: Fighter jets, that’s right. But– since then, it’s picked up. I think we’re now flowing more supplies and material and weapons into Ukraine. I think they’ve done a good job of bringing the allies along, which is important. You– you have to act collectively. And you have to give some credit, by the way, to the Congress, which I think– you know, in the few– few issues that has unified Congress has been this one, support for Ukraine. And in some ways, they’ve led the administration. So it’s good to see now Congress and the Executive Branch– acting together, reasonably aligned, to help the Ukrainian people.
Tomorrow, May 9, marks an important day on the Russian calendar, victory in World War II.
Mark Esper: Well, I think the conventional wisdom right now seems to be that by May 9th– Putin is gonna try and secure Donbass, which would be– occupying the rest of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, if you will, and declare them protected.
Norah O’Donnell: Is there any scenario where President Putin could take those regions and then just declare victory?
Mark Esper: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, if I were a betting man today, I’d say that is what he will do. He’ll at least secure the– all of Donbass, declare that he’s liberated the Russian-speaking peoples of that region, and declare victory. And that will become another frozen conflict.
Mark Esper’s time as secretary of defense began when he was overwhelmingly confirmed by the Senate, 90-8, on July 23, 2019. Two days later, on a phone call with President Zelenskyy, Mr. Trump asked for a “favor” while he was holding up aid to Ukraine. The call ultimately led to his impeachment.
Norah O’Donnell: You had to keep pressing President Trump to release $250 million in aid to Ukraine?
Mark Esper: Yes, 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– it’s the law. We have to do it.”
Esper writes in his new memoir, “A Sacred Oath,” that the Ukraine affair was an early source of tension between him and President Trump. That tension would grow, as he told us when we met him at his alma mater, West Point.
Mark Esper: Because It’s important to our country, it’s important to the republic, the American people, that they understand what was going on in this very consequential period. The last year of the Trump administration. And to tell the story about things we prevented. Really bad things. Dangerous things that could have taken the country in– in a dark direction.
Norah O’Donnell: What kind of terrible things did you prevent?
Mark Esper: At various times– during the– certainly the last year of the administration, you know, folks in the White House are proposing to take military action against Venezuela. To– to– to strike Iran. At one point, somebody propose we blockade Cuba.
These ideas would happen– it seemed, every– every few weeks. Something like this would come up and we’d have to swat ’em down.
Norah O’Donnell: Who’s “we had to swat ’em down?”
Mark Esper: Well, mostly me. I had good support from– from General Mark Milley.
Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley ran the Army for over a year before finding themselves in charge at the Pentagon. in order to deal with what he calls some of the “crazy” ideas coming from the White House, Esper and Milley came up with a system.
Mark Esper: I come up with this idea. Actually, Mark Milley and I discuss it– what we call the “Four No’s”. The four things we had to prevent from happening between then and the election. And one was no strategic retreats, no unnecessary wars, no politi– politicization of the military, and no misuse of the military. And so, as we went through the next five to six months, that became the metric by which we would measure things.
Esper told us he had reason to be concerned, not just about an unnecessary military conflict with an adversary but with one of our closest neighbors and largest trading partners.
Mark Esper: The president pulls me aside on at least a couple of occasions and suggests that maybe we have the U.S. military shoot missiles into Mexico–
Norah O’Donnell: Shoot missiles into Mexico for what?
Mark Esper: He would say to– to go after the cartels. And we would have this private discussion where I’d say, “Mr. President, I– you know, I– I understand the motive.” Because he was very serious about dealing with drugs in America. I get that, we all understand, but I had to explain to him, “We– we can’t do that. It would violate international law. It would be terrible for our neighbors to the south. It would, you know, impact us in so many ways. Why– why don’t we do this instead?”
Norah O’Donnell: You politely push back on the idea. Did President Trump really say, “No one would know it was us?”
Mark Esper: Yes. Yes. I– I– he– he said that. And I– I just thought it was fanciful, right? Because, of course, it would be us. I was reluctant to tell this story. Because I think– I– I thought, people won’t believe this. That they’ll think I’m just making it up and folks in– in– in Trump’s orbit will– will dispute it. And then I was having dinner– after the election in 2020 with a fellow Cabinet member. And– and he said to me, he goes, “You know, remember that time when President Trump suggested you shoot mess– m– missiles into Mexico?” And I said to him, “You– you heard that?” He goes, “Oh, yeah. I– I couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t believe how– how well you managed and talked him down from that.” And at that moment, I knew I gotta write the story. Because at least have one witness who will verify that this really did happen.
When asked whether Esper’s story about Mexico was true, Donald Trump said in a statement to 60 Minutes, “no comment.”
Esper says to fact-check his book, he sent all – or parts of — his manuscript to more than two dozen current and former four-star officers, senior civilians from the Pentagon, and Cabinet members. 60 Minutes spoke to six of them who said what they read was accurate.
During the late spring of 2020, it was not a foreign crisis, but the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, that Esper calls a turning point in his time as secretary of defense. On the night of May 31 in Washington, protests for racial justice were marred by rioters who set parts of Washington ablaze and, Esper says, enraged President Trump. At a meeting the next morning, Esper told us, the commander-in-chief was on the verge of ordering 10,000 active-duty troops into the streets of the Capital.
Norah O’Donnell: What was the most disturbing thing that the president said during that meeting on June 1st?
Mark Esper: The president is ranting at– at the room. He’s using a lot of, you know– foul language. You know, “You– y– you all are f-in’ losers,” right? And then he says it to the vice president, Mike Pence. He– he’s usin’ the same language and he’s lookin’ at Pence.
Norah O’Donnell: He called Mike Pence–
Mark Esper: H– he di–
Norah O’Donnell: –an f-in’ loser?
Mark Esper: –he didn’t– he didn’t call him directly, but he was looking at him when he was saying it. And it really caught my attention, and I thought, that– we’re at a different spot now. He’s gonna finally give a direct order to deploy paratroopers into the streets of Washington, D.C. And I’m thinking with weapons and bayonets. This would be horrible.
Norah O’Donnell: What specifically was he suggesting that the U.S. military should do to these protesters?
Mark Esper: He says, “Can’t you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something.” And he’s suggesting that that’s what we should do, that we should bring in the troops and shoot the protesters.
Norah O’Donnell: The commander in chief was suggesting that the U.S. military shoot protesters? American protesters.
Mark Esper: Yes, in the streets–
Norah O’Donnell: American protesters.
Mark Esper: –of our nation’s capital. That’s right. Shocking.
Norah O’Donnell: We have seen in other countries a government use their military to shoot protesters.
Mark Esper: Right.
Norah O’Donnell: What kinda governments are those?
Mark Esper: Oh, those are banana republics, right? Or– authoritarian regimes. We all remember Tiananmen Square, right, in China
Regarding whether he suggested shooting protesters, in his statement, former President Trump said, “this is a complete lie, and 10 witnesses can back it up. Mark Esper was weak and totally ineffective, and because of it, i had to run the military.”
Esper told us he wanted to avoid the president invoking the Insurrection Act, which would have allowed Mr. Trump to deploy active-duty troops. Instead, Esper says he helped mobilize 5,000 members of the national guard whose mission includes responding to civil unrest.
And to placate Mr. Trump, Esper writes he also ordered part of the 82nd Airborne up from Ft. Bragg, North Carolina to a base just outside Washington. That evening, the U.S. Park Police used force to clear protestors from Lafayette Park and the Cabinet was called back to the White House.
Mark Esper: The president greets us. And I say, “Where are we going?” And he– he just ignores it and starts walking out the door and crossing across the– the lawn heading out the gate. And as we round that corner the press is all over– all over the place filming, taking pictures. And it– it just dawned on me at that point in time that we’d been duped.
Norah O’Donnell: Duped how?
Mark Esper: This is a pol– this is now a political stunt, right? And– and w– we– I allowed myself to be put in that position. And it only gets worse, right?
Norah O’Donnell: How does it get worse?
Mark Esper: Well, we end up in Lafayette Park– up near the church. And that’s where the president steps out of the crowd, if you will, goes up, picks up the Bible and holds it up for everybody to see and I eventually get directed to come up and join him. And– I made that mistake to– to kinda be there in the first place and to join him.
Within 24 hours, Esper says he sent out a message to employees of the Department of Defense reminding them they must remain apolitical and protect freedom of speech.
Then he decided, that wasn’t enough.
Mark Esper: The Republic felt wobbly. And that’s what prompted me to decide to– to go before the podium at the Pentagon on June 3rd and say what I said.
Mark Esper on June 3, 2020: 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. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.
Right after that, Esper was summoned to the White House. He says he was sure Donald Trump would fire him.
Norah O’Donnell: Why did you think he would fire you?
Mark Esper: Because I publicly rebuked him. And what I would learn later is– at the White House is he thought I took away his authority to invoke the Insurrection Act. He did not believe that he had the authority to impose it.
Norah O’Donnell: Politically, you might have.
Mark Esper: I suppose at a political level, I– I did. But he still had that authority. What he also knew was I wasn’t gonna go along with him.
Esper believes President Trump didn’t fire him at the time because it may have hurt Mr. Trump’s chances for re-election. Esper also told us he did not vote for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump, but mailed in a ballot for another candidate.
Norah O’Donnell: You’re a lifelong Republican. But in this book, you detail how you subverted many of the president’s wishes. People will say you were disloyal.
Mark Esper: I never disobeyed a direct order from the president of the United States. I was fortunate that he often didn’t give direct orders. But otherwise, I did what I thought was best for the nation and for our security, and completely within the authority granted to me under the law.
Norah O’Donnell: Critics will say, “Why now in a book? Why didn’t you speak out during the Trump administration?”
Mark Esper: It’s very simple. If I spoke out at the time, I would be fired, number one. And secondly, I had no confidence that anybody that came in behind me would not be a real Trump loyalist. And Lord knows what would’ve happened then.
Esper says six days after the election, he and his staff could hardly believe they were still at the Pentagon. Then he got word that the president planned to fire him. The phone rang and Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, was on the line.
Norah O’Donnell: You write in the book, he says, “The president’s not happy with you. He feels you haven’t supported him enough.” He added, “You aren’t sufficiently loyal.” And then you replied?
Mark Esper: I say, you know, “That’s his prerogative, to fire me.” But I say, “My oath is to the Constitution, not to him.”
Produced by Keith Sharman. Associate producers, Kate Morris and Eliza Costas. Broadcast associate, Olivia Rinaldi. Edited by Richard Buddenhagen.