Former President Donald Trump has made it clear that after his time in the White House, he hates Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). But in the final months of the Trump term, it was McConnell who still had enough sway to stop the White House from a damaging purge of Defense Department officials they'd deemed disloyal.
Paranoia had run amok, particularly in 2020, former Defense Secretary Mark Esper wrote in his new book, A Sacred Oath, after Trump lost the election.
"Getting rid of good, honest, competent people seemed to be the modus operandi for the Trump administration, especially in 2020. In the final year, a disagreement with some staffer at the White House, or with someone who had connections to the hard-core loyalists working there, and you were quickly branded as a disloyal 'never Trumper'—the ultimate scarlet letter," Esper wrote.
Trump's power to hire and fire anyone he wanted seemed to be the top rationale. Esper said that the decisions were made in a vacuum by sub-par people.
"Those decisions were made by personalities who really didn’t have the background, understanding or judgment to make good choices," Esper wrote. "It was both ironic and a shame, but their blind loyalty to Trump resulted in the removal of individuals who were actually making Trump successful by ensuring the government functioned well and implemented the positive parts of his agenda."
But everything stopped when Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist ended up on a forthcoming purge list. The younger brother of conservative activist Grover Norquist managed to get the attention of McConnell, who stepped in to stop it. The DOD was hemorrhaging staff at a volatile time for the country as the president refused to submit to the peaceful transfer of power.
"The White House was decapitating the Department and traumatizing the survivors—everyone else—in the process," Esper recalled. Loyalists were installed in place. Before the holidays in 2020, a heated Oval Office meeting was reported, where Michael Flynn argued to the president he should use Martial law to stay in office, CNN reported at the time.
Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary of Homeland Security under Trump, explained that hearing that phrase is a key trigger to some militia groups.
"When they hear that the president is actually considering this, there are violent extremist groups that look at this as a dog whistle, an excuse to go out and create ... violence," she told CNN.
It was just a few weeks later that the U.S. Capitol was under siege.
Esper's book is on sale Tuesday.
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