Shortly before the 2020 election, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, “stunned” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by saying the president wanted to assassinate a senior Iranian military officer operating outside the Islamic Republic.
“This was a very bad idea with very dire consequences,” Mark Esper, Trump’s second and final secretary of defense, writes in his new memoir, adding that General Mark Milley suspected O’Brien was calling the strike purely in terms of Trump’s actions. saw political interests.
A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Defense Secretary in Extraordinary Times to be published next week. The Guardian got a copy.
Throughout the memoir, Esper presents himself as one of a group of aides who oppose bad or illegal ideas suggested by Trump or subordinates — such as the proposed strike on the Iranian officer.
Among such ideas discussed, Esper says, were sending “missiles into Mexico to destroy the drug labs”; sending 250,000 troops to the southern border; and dipping the headless head of a terrorist leader in pig’s blood as a warning to other Islamist militants.
Trump made combativeness towards Tehran an important part of his administration and platform for reelection, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and regularly warned in bombastic terms about the costs of conflict with the US.
He also ordered a drone strike on a top Iranian general blamed for attacking US targets. In January 2020, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the elite Quds force, was assassinated in Baghdad.
At a meeting in July 2020, Esper writes, O’Brien urged military action against Iran over its uranium enrichment — work that accelerated after Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal.
Esper’s book is subject to occasional redactions. In this case it reads “O’Brien insisted on” an obscured word “and military action”. Esper says vice president, Mike Pence, is “subtly skinny”[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.
But a month or so later, on August 20, Esper says Milley told him that O’Brien had called the night before to say that “the president wanted to punch a senior military officer operating outside of Iran.”
Esper writes: “Milley and I were aware of this individual 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 gathering the national security team to discuss this?
“Milley said he was ‘stunned’ by the call, and he felt that ‘O’Brien has incited the president to do this,’ in an effort to create news that would aid Trump’s reelection.”
Milley, Esper writes, told O’Brien he would discuss the request with Esper and others.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Esper wrote. “I’d seen this movie before, where White House aides meet the president, stir him up, and then serve up one of their ‘great ideas’. But this was a very bad idea with very serious consequences. How come people in the White House haven’t seen this?”
Fears that Trump would provoke war with Iran persisted throughout his presidency, fueled by reports of hawkish machinations on his staff. Such fears increased as the 2020 election approached and Trump followed Joe Biden in the polls.
In September 2020, Trump tweeted: “Any attack by Iran, in whatever form, on the United States will be answered with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater!”
In the case of O’Brien’s proposed strike on the Iranian officer, Esper writes that he told Milley he would do nothing without a written order from Trump.
“It was impossible for me to unilaterally take such an action,” he writes, “particularly one that carries a range of legal, diplomatic, political and military implications, not to mention putting us at war could collapse with Iran.”
He also says that the O’Brien appeal to Milley in late August was “the last time anything with Iran was discussed seriously before the election”.