Shortly before the 2020 election, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, “shocked” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by saying the president wanted to kill a senior Iranian military officer operating outside the Republic. Islamic.
“This was a really bad idea with very big consequences,” writes Mark Esper, Trump’s second and last defense secretary, in his new memoir, adding that Gen. Mark Milley suspected O’Brien saw the attack solely in terms of of Trump’s political interests.
A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense in Extraordinary Times will be published next week. The Guardian obtained a copy.
Throughout the memoir, Esper portrays himself as part of a group of aides who resisted bad or illegal ideas proposed by Trump or his subordinates, such as the proposed attack on the Iranian officer.
Among other such ideas that were discussed, says Esper, were sending “missiles to Mexico to destroy drug laboratories”; sending 250,000 troops to the southern border; and dipping the decapitated head of a terrorist leader in pig’s blood as a warning to other Islamist militants.
Trump made belligerence toward Tehran a major part of his administration and his platform for re-election, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and regularly warning in bombastic terms about the cost of conflict with the United States.
He also ordered a drone strike on a top Iranian general whom they blamed for attacks on US targets. In January 2020, Qassem Suleimani, head of the elite Quds force, was assassinated in Baghdad.
In a meeting in July 2020, Esper writes, O’Brien pushed for military action against Iran over its uranium enrichment, work that was accelerated after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal.
Esper’s book is subject to occasional editions. In this case, he says “O’Brien was pushing for ‘one word crossed out’ and military action.” Esper says Vice President Mike Pence “leans subtly[ed] behind” O’Brien, who said, “The president feels like doing something.”
Esper writes that Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, “jumped in to contradict this statement” and the moment passed.
However, about a month later, on August 20, Esper says Milley told him that O’Brien had called the night before to say “the president wanted to attack a high-ranking military officer who was operating out of Iran.”
Esper writes: “Milley and I knew about this person and the problems he had been causing in the region for some time. But why now? What was new? Was there an imminent threat? How about getting the national security team together to discuss this?
“Milley said he was ‘astonished’ by the call, and felt ‘O’Brien put the president on this,’ trying to create news that would help Trump’s re-election.”
Milley, Esper writes, told O’Brien that he would discuss the request with Esper and others.
“I couldn’t believe it,” writes Esper. “I had seen this movie before, where White House aides meet with the president, egg him on, and then come up with one of his ‘big ideas.’ But this was a very bad idea with very big consequences. How come the people in the White House didn’t see this?
Fears that Trump could provoke a war with Iran persisted throughout his presidency, fueled by reports of machinations among his hawkish staff. Such fears intensified as the 2020 election approached and Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls.
In September 2020, Trump tweeted: “Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!”
In the case of O’Brien’s suggested attack on the Iranian officer, Esper writes that he told Milley he would do nothing without a written order from Trump.
“There was no way I was going to take such an action unilaterally,” he writes, “particularly one fraught with a variety of legal, diplomatic, political, and military implications, not to mention that it could plunge us into war with Iran.”
It also says O’Brien’s call to Milley in late August was “the last time anything seriously involving Iran came up before the election.”