Talk about a funny visual.
Mark Esper was secretary of Defense in the Trump administration from 2019 to 2020. This is an adapted excerpt from his new book, A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times.
On Friday, Aug. 16, 2019 — just three weeks after the Senate confirmed me as secretary of Defense — the national security team met with President Donald Trump at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was already on-site, along with CIA Director Gina Haspel and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, when Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I arrived. It was a little strange driving onto the club grounds in black Suburbans and exiting the cars in dark suits and uniforms while Bedminster members of all ages frolicked in the nearby pool and foursomes golfed on the other side of the clubhouse. National security adviser John Bolton arrived a little after us. He had come aboard Air Force Two with Vice President Mike Pence.
John and I quickly said hello, and he pulled me aside to ask quietly, “When did you find out about this meeting?”
“Yesterday,” I said.
He paused, told me that he had “just found out this morning about it,” and said that State was trying to “cut the NSC out of the process.” He then quickly asked my views of State’s proposed deal to end the Afghanistan war, which was the ostensible subject of the meeting.
The meeting began a little after 3:00 p.m. in a security “tent” erected inside a large, empty wing of a club building to protect us from electronic eavesdropping. The tent was no longer than two picnic tables in length, with just enough room on the sides for people to walk by and grab their seats.
The president arrived in good spirits, dressed in a white shirt, blue sport coat and slacks, and took his seat at the end of the narrow table, nearest the entrance. After Trump greeted everyone, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kicked off the discussion by outlining Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s efforts to conclude a deal with the Taliban over the previous months and then hitting the key points of the agreement. The secretary of State was realistic about the proposal and presented a sober assessment of its prospects, adding that it was “not a perfect deal” and he “did not trust the Taliban.”
I looked across the table at Bolton furiously taking notes on a large legal pad. When the conversation turned to me, I told the president that the DoD supported the plan, contingent on a conditions-based approach. I also added in my two cents about not trusting the Taliban, but thought the deal was “good enough” to give peace a chance. “We can always hit pause if the conditions aren’t being met,” I added. Dunford agreed.
It was clear that Bolton opposed the agreement. He cited specific concerns about the May 2021 departure date for U.S. forces, especially the fact that no residual “counterterrorism capability” would remain in-country if implemented as written.
We didn’t stay on topic long at any point during the meeting. Trump started bouncing from issue to issue, getting more and more fired up as he ranted about corruption in Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani’s alleged mansion in Dubai and, inevitably, his complaints about my predecessor, Jim Mattis. He then leaped around the world like a bullfrog jumping from lily pad to lily pad. The president disapprovingly asked why we were putting more troops in Poland, asking, “Do we really want a Fort Trump there?” He already agreed to both, Bolton reminded him. The president complained there were too many U.S. troops in Europe and that “NATO is ripping us off.”
This triggered the president’s Germany soundtrack, which was mostly about Chancellor Angela Merkel and how Berlin was “not paying its fair share” when it came to defense. He told the story about his first meeting with Merkel, and how she asked, “What are you going to do about Ukraine?” regarding U.S. military and financial support. To which he quickly responded, as he told it, “What are you going to do about Ukraine?” In his view, Germany was “closer to Ukraine than we are,” and it’s a “big buffer” for the Germans against Russia. “They should be paying Ukraine more than anyone,” he proclaimed.
I would hear this monologue several more times during my tenure. In the weeks that followed, in fact, I pressed Trump on several occasions to approve the $250 million in security assistance that Congress had appropriated for Ukraine, and was joined at times by Bolton and/or Pompeo. None of us could figure out what was driving the president’s resistance. I would try every argument and strategy I could muster. When he complained about corruption in Ukraine, I told him, “I agree,” but pointed out that “they are making progress,” and that “tackling corruption is a priority for [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy.” I said to the president, “Denying him the aid would only undermine Zelenskyy’s efforts to do what you want — clean the place up.” When he questioned, “Why are we even giving them this stuff [security assistance] in the first place,” I ran through a series of arguments that failed time and time again: deterrence of Russian aggression; showing Moscow our commitment to our partners; and aiding a democracy under siege. I then pivoted to the fact that “Congress appropriated the funding, and we don’t really have a choice” to not release it. “It is the law, Mr. President,” I said bluntly. With his arms folded in front of him as he leaned forward into his desk, he was silent. He didn’t seem to care.
But in the Afghanistan meeting now, the president was wound up, sitting in his chair, arms alternating between outstretched at his side as he spoke, and folded across his chest as he finished a point. He also kept looking up and down the table to read people’s reactions. His volume pitched between high and higher.
I had only been on the job for a few weeks now, so this was my first encounter with Trump in this mode; it wouldn’t be my last. Some of the things he was proposing were outlandish — such as a “complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Korea” or the pullback of all military and diplomatic personnel from Africa. “Shut down the embassies in Africa,” he often said, “and bring our people [U.S. diplomats] home.” None of this was in our nation’s interests, and as I calmly responded with facts, data and arguments, I saw some irritation in him — I was the “new guy” pushing back. I knew right then and there that this job would be far more challenging than I had anticipated, to say the least.
The meeting that Friday afternoon in Bedminster ended a little before 5:00 p.m. without a hard decision. Trump seemed to be leaning toward supporting the agreement, but only if he could pitch it as a “wonderful deal.” This, of course, was in contrast with his earlier comments. Now, he was somehow going to will the “bad deal” into a “wonderful deal.” Near the end of our meeting, Trump said he wanted any public statement we might release about the peace deal to say that the U.S. would be at “zero [troops] in October” 2020, just before the election. Nov. 3, 2020, was the lens through which he viewed the agreement. It was an important takeaway for me.
The team that had met at Bedminster had a follow-up session in the Situation Room on Friday, Aug. 30, with Pence, Bolton and Khalilzad all calling in from abroad this time. The discussion largely picked up where we left off in New Jersey. The principals still held their same positions. Pompeo outlined to the president the final plan as it was at that point, which was mostly unchanged from the version briefed weeks earlier, and he recommended we “move forward” on it, as imperfect as it was. Trump listened closely. The president looked at the large screen and asked Bolton, who was in Warsaw, “Would you sign it, John?” Trump knew Bolton drew the hardest line on the proposed agreement. “I would not,” John responded. He ticked off the reasons, but gave some ground by telling Trump he “can support going down to 8,600 troops and then wait” for the Afghan elections. We “can decide what to do next after that,” he added. Bolton made clear we couldn’t trust the Taliban and cited his concerns about the lack of an enforcement mechanism. He made several good points, many the same as my policy team. I, too, was fine with going down to 8,600 and pausing. Gen. Scott Miller was reducing the number of troops in-country anyway. I acknowledged Bolton’s position but restated my view that we pursue the deal “provided that further reductions in U.S. forces were conditions based,” and that we stick to that approach. Without it, we would squander the leverage that a continued U.S. military presence and the threat of force gave us.
Trump then caught everyone by surprise by declaring, “I want to meet with the Taliban” here in Washington. We all sat there stunned for a moment, carefully looking around at one another, and then at him to see if the president was serious. He was. Trump asked Pence what he thought, to which the vice president rightly cautioned that we give the idea more thought. Trump then said he wanted to meet with Ghani too, proposing separate meetings in D.C. with him and the Taliban leadership. “So, we can meet with the Taliban but not congressional leadership?” I thought disgustedly.
Ever the showman, Trump believed this would bring great focus to the matter at hand and, though this was never said, cast him as an extraordinary diplomat and businessman who could close any deal. None of us liked this idea. As the president went around the room, we each tried to dissuade him in different ways. I recommended against it, reminding him that “the Taliban have the blood of American service members on their hands, not to mention their role in the death of nearly three thousand civilians killed on our own soil on 9/11.” It was not appropriate for the president of the United States to meet with them, I added, and said, “It will not go over well with the troops and their families.” It didn’t sit well with me at all. Bolton broke the serious tone of the room when the president asked what he thought. I knew John long enough to anticipate his view — no way — but he surprised us with a wisecrack about making sure any Taliban who visit the White House first walk through “the world’s most powerful magnetometer.”
The president then transitioned to a quick discussion about how to craft the message about his proposed meeting with Ghani and the Taliban, which he had put out should be moved to Camp David. Trump would often look up into the air, chin raised, as he searched for the right words, then drop his head, and say, “How about … ‘The president has agreed to a meeting,’” and then, “Wait, wait, … let’s say ‘he’s looking forward to the meeting.’” Pence and he went back and forth a couple of times, the vice president in his even tone trying to steer Trump in a better direction with suggestions phrased as questions, such as “Would you meet with President Ghani first?”
I couldn’t believe this was happening. We were actually going to sit down with the Taliban at the president’s historic Maryland retreat, like old friends? There was no way Dunford and I could join him. The Taliban had killed and wounded more than 20,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan since 2001, and that’s just counting the physical wounds of war. Not only couldn’t I personally do it, it would be terrible for any secretary of Defense or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be sipping tea with these terrorists, especially while we still had troops in a combat zone. It would be breaking faith with them, their families and our veterans. It was not lost on many of us, either, that the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was coming up in a week or so. This idea was terrible in so many ways.
On Thursday, Sept. 5, a car bomb killed a dozen people in Kabul, including an American service member. Trump was furious the Taliban would do this as he planned a meeting with them at Camp David in a few days to finalize the peace deal. In a series of tweets, he both announced the meetings had been planned for the upcoming Sunday and then canceled them, stating that if the Taliban “cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.” With that, not only was Camp David off but so too were the talks. It also relieved me of a difficult, early decision about what I’d do if faced with the order to join him and the Taliban at Camp David. But there would be other such days. Many others.
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