Trump’s Former Aides and Advisers on the Peril He Poses
Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper agreed with an interviewer that President Trump posed “a threat to democracy.” Other former administration officials have expressed similar concerns.
By Jennifer Schuessler
May 12, 2022
In his new book “A Sacred Oath,” released earlier this week, Mark T. Esper, the former defense secretary, revealed that President Donald J. Trump in 2020 had floated the idea of launching missiles into Mexico to “destroy the drug labs” and asked why the military could not “just shoot” racial justice protesters in Washington in the legs.
Mr. Esper also described his concerns that Mr. Trump might misuse the military during the 2020 election, for example by asking soldiers to seize ballot boxes.
On Monday, when a Fox News host asked if he thought President Trump “was a threat to democracy,” Mr. Esper was blunt.
“I think that given the events of Jan. 6, given how he has undermined the election results, he incited people to come to D.C., stirred them up that morning and failed to call them off, to me that threatens our democracy,” he said.
“So, yes?” asked the host, Bret Baier.
Mr. Esper replied: “What else can you conclude, Bret?”
That comment, from a man who has also served as secretary of the Army and chief of staff of the conservative Heritage Foundation, was seen by some as a startlingly direct condemnation. But Mr. Esper was not the first former Trump administration official to go beyond criticisms of President Trump’s temperament or specific policies to say he posed a threat to American democracy itself.
Here is a compilation of comments by Mr. Esper and other former officials, made during and after President Trump’s term in office.
“It was a very troubling event. The moment, it was an insurrection, an attempt to overturn a free and fair election and to prevent the peaceful transfer of power. And it [sic] was right to be impeached.”
— Interview with Judy Woodruff, “PBS NewsHour,” May 6, commenting on the Jan. 6 insurrection
STEPHANIE GRISHAM, White House press secretary and communications director (July 2019-April 2020)
“Everybody’s showing their fealty to them, he’s on his revenge tour to people who dared to vote for impeachment. I want to just warn people, once he takes office, if he were to win, he doesn’t have to worry about re-election anymore, he will be about revenge, he will probably have some pretty draconian policies.”
— Interview on “Good Morning America,” Oct. 4, 2021, in which she also said she would urge Mr. Trump “not to run” in 2024
Read more from our Democracy Challenged coverage.
MILES TAYLOR, chief of staff, Department of Homeland Security (February 2019-September 2019) and author of the anonymously published book “A Warning”
“I’m still astounded by the countless Trump officials who privately agreed with me that he was a threat to democracy yet *still* remain silent. Why?”
— Twitter, June 11, 2021
JOHN F. KELLY, secretary of homeland security (January 2017-July 2017) and White House chief of staff (July 2017-January 2019)
“What happened on Capitol Hill yesterday is a direct result of his poisoning the minds of people with the lies and the frauds.”
— Interview with Jake Tapper, CNN, Jan. 7, 2021
Other former administration officials who have publicly expressed concern over dangers President Trump might pose to democracy include the former defense secretary James N. Mattis.
H.R. MCMASTER, former national security adviser (February 2017-April 2018)
“It’s a gift to our adversaries, who want to shake our confidence in who we are, shake our confidence in our democratic principles and institutions and processes.”
— Interview with Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press,” Sept. 27, 2020, commenting on President Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he lost the election
JOHN R. BOLTON, former national security adviser (April 2018-Sept. 2019)
“The concern I have, speaking as a conservative Republican, is that once the election is over, if the president wins, the political constraint is gone. And because he has no philosophical grounding, there’s no telling what will happen in a second term.”
— Interview with Martha Raddatz, ABC News, June 21, 2020, in which he also said President Trump posed a “danger for the republic”
JAMES N. MATTIS, secretary of defense (January 2017-January 2019)
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander in chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
“We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
— Statement published by The Atlantic, June 3, 2020, following the clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.
REX W. TILLERSON, former secretary of state (February 2017-March 2018)
“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom.”
“If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both the public and private sector — and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector — then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years.”
— Commencement speech at Virginia Military Institute, May 16, 2018
Jennifer Schuessler is a culture reporter covering intellectual life and the world of ideas. She is based in New York. @jennyschuessler