Secretary of Defense Mark Esper did the wrong thing before, days later, he did the right thing. Walking across Lafayette Park cleared by pepper gas and something called pepper-ball projectiles by troops on the order of the Attorney General William Barr, he was summoned to stand with the president, who was giving stage directions for his tableau where he would “dominate” the “battle space.”
Esper was not innocent, but he did look flummoxed when Donald Trump pulled a Bible out of Ivanka’s purse and then didn’t read so much as a comforting passage. Five years ago, he famously remarked of the book, Old and New Testament, that they’re “equal” and “incredible” and he couldn’t possibly single out a verse. “I joke, very much so. They always hold up The Art of the Deal and I say my second favorite book of all time.”
Of all the jokes Trump has gotten off, Monday’s march to St. John’s church that he’d visited one time in three years was the biggest. A day later, Esper tried to photo-shop himself out of what went down. He contradicted the president and said that the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd did not merit calling up the military under the Insurrection Act. The military would not take up arms against its own citizens. He ordered them home.
Esper is not a profile in courage, except in comparison to Barr. And Esper’s not one to take a knee or speak eloquently or say very much at all. But in the middle of his drama, former Gen. James Mattis, who’d been to hell and back with the president but held his fire for years, unloaded a fusillade, denouncing the president as a threat to the Constitution who was determined to divide the country. Generals don’t talk that way to the commander-in-chief without cause.
Mattis has Esper’s back, as does Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation’s highest-ranking military officer in the armed forces. He found his spine this week, having lost it when he not only supported the president’s illegal use of power but dressed the part at Monday night’s parish hall putsch. Esper’s the boss.
Did he know Milley would show up for the parade in full combat gear as if he were playing himself in a movie? In a letter, Milley wrote that the National Guard would operate under the authority of state governors, not the president’s, and he scribbled at the bottom: “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America—we will stay true to that oath.”
Within hours, Trump was trolling Mattis, claiming he gave Mad Dog his nickname (lie) and fired him (lie again). Those lies roused yet another general, former Chief of Staff John Kelly, who corrected everything Trump said speculating he must be “confused.”
But then Esper made a partial retreat, retracting the order for the troops to leave, although not taking back the critical decision not to use them. For a White House high-fiving over the performance, it was a bridge too far to have Esper hit them with another bad headline questioning Trump’s militarization. And this is where Esper stepped up and did the right thing. After an angry conversation with Trump, Esper gave the order for the 82nd Airborne to withdraw from the Capitol and return to Fort Bragg.
The whole illegal mobilization was undertaken because the president lost a news cycle, and when Ivanka and Jared agree with Dad on the way to win the next one, no one can stop the train rolling down the track. The stunt at the church got Trump out of the bunker he insisted he was only inspecting, with Melania and Barron along for the ride. The White House wasn’t going to let some little Cabinet secretary send them back underground.
It’s hard to know where this puts Esper in the Trump firmament. Is he dead to them, as aides are leaking? Is he Mick Mulvaney, who never recovered from coughing out of turn or repeating the president’s “get over it” about mingling foreign policy with politics, but hung around until he could quietly be dispatched to Northern Ireland? Or will he be simply downsized, subservient to Barr in a power grab over the military, some of whom are black ops, with no insignia or badges or ID? Barr has been overseeing troop movements from a bunker of his own near the FBI in Chinatown. He’s put up more fence around Washington than on the border with Mexico.
Whatever happens, Esper is an anomaly. Up to now, you have to be a retired or late career journalist like George Will, who wrote a stunning op-ed about the protests this week, or a defeated or retiring politician, like Jeff Flake, to tell the truth about Trump.
There was the slightest movement in some quarters. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Thursday she’s struggling with her support of Trump but won’t say more because she doesn’t want to be a distraction. We don’t mind waiting. Others are neither seeing nor hearing evil. About 10 GOP senators were caught on camera speeding from a hobble to a cantor into their weekly caucus as if there might not be enough sandwiches to go around. By contrast, the younger, ambitious cattle flaunt that they’re staying in the corral. Sen. Tom Cotton wrote an op-ed in The New York Times with the unambiguous headline, “Send in the Troops,” prompting black staffers at the paper to revolt.
The wily Barr held his own press conference at week’s end to counterprogram George Floyd’s memorial and to compromise FBI Director Chris Wray, who sometimes breaks out of the corral to buck the White House. He played good Robin to Barr’s bad Batman, and they found an African American running the U.S. Marshall service for diversity. To Barr, every protestor, whether singing “Lean on Me” or lying prone for the length of time it took to kill George Floyd or holding hands with a policeman, is a looter and should be shot—okay then, certainly gassed. Trump’s advice to the police applies to Barr’s battalions: “don’t be so nice to them.”
We’ll see whether Esper will be more like Sessions and hang in despite the humiliation or like Gary Cohn, who almost took a powder after Charlottesville. Esper’s situation is the opposite of those who held onto power for status and money after they knew they were doing the devil’s work. His replacement would definitely be worse. The president doesn’t attract the best people or want them. He seeks out the worst. Look at who he’s purged and look at just his latest appointment. Caught in a lie and withdrawn, John Ratcliffe’s name was resubmitted. He now endangers us as director of National Intelligence.
As he tiptoed through the minefield, Esper was a man in the last stages of Twister, trying to reconcile the constitution with Trump’s anarchy, admit a mistake, declare some independence but not too much, and rescue his reputation. At the end, he stood straight and tall.
Esper must know that Trump and Barr are rehearsing for the revolution with their discrediting of the election in case it doesn’t go their way. “Cops for Trump” aren’t going to be enough. Trump will need the military. Esper has to draw a red line now.
Trump brags that his shows get better ratings than blockbusters like the finale of The Bachelor, one of his few accurate boasts. Whatever Nielsen says about the show at the church on Monday, it bombed. Rush Limbaugh talked to Charlamagne tha God about the dire need for law and order but that doesn’t seem to have swung public sentiment. The country is coming down on the side of the Constitution. For now, so is Esper.