In his new tell-all book, former Defense Department Secretary Mark Esper recalled a meeting with top Cabinet officials during the withdrawal from Syria and the "warhawks" who had to be reminded that they weren't going to bomb Iran.
In an attack on Esper in a letter to CBS News, Trump said that Esper was so weak that he personally had to run the military to defeat ISIS. But the book describes the defense team being forced to create a chart to explain to Trump how an attack on Iran would work.
Trump met with congressional leaders on the afternoon of June 20, telling them he was about to bomb Iran after they shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. But by the end of the day, "with ships readying missiles and airplanes already in the skies, told the Pentagon to call off the airstrikes with only 10 minutes to go," the New York Times reported three months later.
Three months later there was a fear that Trump's inaction was a sign of weakness, which emboldened Iran "to attack oil facilities in Saudi Arabia [in September]."
Behind the scenes, Esper described his meetings with Trump to talk about options as late as Oct. 2019.
"The chairman and I want to walk you through an updated set of options that target multiple Iranian assets, each with a varying degree of impact, estimated casualties, level of difficulty and risk, and anticipated response," Esper explained to Trump as he nodded.
They'd developed a special "heat chart" for the president showing prudent ideas in green and bad ideas in red.
"We literally used a colored bar that ran across the graphic and morphed from yellow to red, getting 'hotter,' as you looked left to right to visually identify the escalating options," he described.
"It was challenging to keep the president focused. I had been in enough meetings now to experience it multiple times. A discussion would stop stone-cold and pivot as a new thought raced through his head—he saw something on TV, or somebody made a remark that threw him off track," Esper recalled. "Somehow, we often ended up on the same topics, like his greatest hits of the decade: NATO spending; Merkel, Germany, and Nord Stream 2; corruption in Afghanistan; U.S. troops in Korea; and, closing our embassies in Africa, for example. My first full exposure to this behavior was at a principals’ meeting in Bedminster, New Jersey, in August 2019 that was supposed to focus on the Afghan peace agreement."
He said that it was like a pinball machine with a ball binging and banging around from one place to another.
Sometimes, Esper said, people like Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross were in the room advocating for "tough action. Go figure," Esper wrote.
At the top of the page, in big, bold letters it read "No war with Iran" and "No nuclear weapon for Iran." Esper explained it was an effort to remind Trump of what he promised months prior. Esper would read the phrases aloud to the room "to remind the president of what he said, let him know that we were listening, and ensure others in the room—especially the war hawks like National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, and to a lesser extent Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence—were all reminded of the president’s views."
The bottom of each page, Esper said that he had a Battle Damage Assessment for the targets that included "estimated casualties — both civilian and military," which he calculated after Trump backed down the months previously.
"I often had to point back to the top of the chart and say, 'Mr. President, you said, ‘No war with Iran.’ If we do this, there is a good chance that we’ll be at war with Iran,'" he described.
There were further fears in 2021 that Trump would issue a last-minute strike against Iran on his way out the door, former national security official Samantha Vinograd warned at the time. Later reports revealed these fears were well-founded.