Over the summer, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who worked alongside Donald Trump for a year and a half, publicly declared that the former president is unsuited for public office. Esper went on to agree that Trump represents “a threat to democracy.”
I’ve long believed that this represented a unique condemnation. As we discussed soon after the former Pentagon chief made the comments, officials are routinely targeted with all kinds of rebukes about their competence and integrity, but to say that a leader represents “a threat to democracy” is to argue that our system of government may no longer endure if that leader holds a position of influence.
It’s the difference between a crooked politician and a dangerous one: The problems posed by the latter are existential.
Months later, as The Hill reported, Esper isn’t backing down.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that former President Trump is unfit for office, and he does not want him to run for president in 2024. … “I wish he wouldn’t,” Esper said, referring to Trump’s announcement Tuesday night that he is making another bid for the White House. “I think he’s unfit for office.”
Given Esper’s earlier concerns, the comments, while striking, didn’t come as much of a surprise.
But as the former president moves forward with plans to pursue a second term, it’s worth appreciating just how much company Esper has among former members of Team Trump.
As regular readers may recall, former Attorney General William Barr, for example, has rejected the idea of Trump returning to the White House. Former White House national security adviser John Bolton hasn’t just denounced Trump, Bolton agreed that the former president would be a national security threat to the United States if given a second term.
John Kelly, meanwhile, served as Trump’s White House chief of staff for 17 months, working side by side with the president every day in the West Wing. Now, Kelly can barely contain his visceral contempt for Trump — and this week, Kelly accused his former boss of an impeachable offense we didn’t previously know about.
The list keeps going. In June 2020, former Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote a rather extraordinary rebuke of Trump, condemning him for being divisive, immature and cavalier about abusing his powers. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shared some uncomplimentary thoughts of his own, claiming that the former president, among other things, “often” urged Tillerson to pursue policies that were inconsistent with American laws.
And these are just the top-level officials who served at the Cabinet level. The list grows much longer if we include other federal officials who worked with Trump just below the Cabinet level.
Every president has faced criticisms from partisan rivals and critics in the press, but it’s qualitatively different to hear from officials who were part of Trump’s own team.
Many of these former officials had a front-row seat, watching how the Republican tried to lead, how he processed information, how he evaluated evidence and how he made decisions.
And now that these men and women have had an opportunity to reflect on their experiences, they’ve let the public know that Trump is unsuited for national leadership.
History offers plenty of examples of presidents who’ve clashed with one aide or another, but we’ve never seen anything like this.