Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper does not believe the federal indictment against his old boss, Donald Trump, is politically motivated.
“I think some of the investigations have been politically tinged against him. This one, I don’t think so,” Esper said Friday while speaking to a small crowd of business and political leaders in downtown Salt Lake City.
Former President Donald Trump was indicted on 37 counts for mishandling sensitive materials he kept at his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida and refused to return to the government. The indictment alleges Trump showed classified documents to other people who were not authorized to see them.
“It was clear he had classified documents. I know what’s important about handling classified documents. This is serious. If you were a young soldier, sailor, or airman and had classified documents at your home, you’d be court-martialed. You could see jail time,” Esper said.
Esper, careful not to take a stance on Trump’s innocence or guilt, noted the legal process should be allowed to continue.
“There are two basic principles. Nobody is above the law, and everybody is innocent until proven guilty,” Esper said.
The reaction to the Trump indictment proved to be a perfect example of what Esper sees as the greatest threat facing the United States - extreme political partisanship on the fringes of both the political left and right.
“The wings of the two parties are pushing the reasonable middle around. We get trapped in these partisan fights. We get trapped in the name-calling,” Esper said Friday, adding that America will not be able to address any other pressing problems until our political leaders can put the partisan fighting aside.
“We have an enormous debt of $32 trillion. The interest on that debt we pay every year is about $500 billion. The defense budget is $800 billion. We have to fix our debt problem, but we’ll never get to that until we solve our partisan differences.”
Esper was appointed Acting Secretary of Defense by Donald Trump on June 18, 2019. He was confirmed to the post by the U.S. Senate on July 23. Trump fired Esper via Twitter on November 9, 2020, just days after his election loss to Joe Biden. Esper later revealed he had written his letter of resignation several days before he was terminated.
Esper clashed with Trump over handling the civil unrest that erupted across the nation in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Trump demanded that 10,000 active duty troops be deployed to U.S. cities to quell the violence, which Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley opposed. He also accompanied Trump to a photo op in front of a church outside the White House that came shortly after police cleared protesters from the area. Esper later expressed regret for the incident.
After his firing, Esper was part of a group that included every other living former secretary of defense who authored an opinion piece that condemned reports Trump was being urged to declare martial law to stay in power.
“The time to question election results has passed, and there is no role for the military in changing them,” the group wrote in The Washington Post oped.
In his 2022 memoir, “A Sacred Oath,” Esper detailed several eyebrow-raising events from the Trump administration, including how Donald Trump suggested launching a missile strike into Mexico to target drug cartels and that Trump asked if U.S. troops could shoot Black Lives Matter protesters in the legs.
“I don’t regret my time in the Trump administration,” Esper said on Friday. “My oath is to the Constitution. Not to a party. Not to a president. Not to a philosophy. To the Constitution and the American people.”
Esper also spoke briefly about a handful of other issues on Friday, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and growing tensions between the U.S. and China.
Esper called Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine a “strategic failure,” but some positives emerged from the war.
“No man has done more to unify NATO in the past 30 years than (Russian President) Vladimir Putin. He didn’t just unify NATO, he expanded NATO,” Esper said, citing Finland’s decision to join the military alliance this year. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine have said they want to join.
“I think our response to Russia invading Ukraine has been good. We’ve led the alliance, and we’re focused on supporting Ukraine. If the United States’ support for Ukraine falls, it will all fall,” Esper warned.
Calling China the “greatest external threat the United States faces today,” Esper brought up a potential Sino-American military conflict over Taiwan.
“I don’t think war with China is imminent, and frankly, I don’t think it’s inevitable. But China could blockade Taiwan, and that could cause a ton of economic disruption,” Esper said