Back in 2020, then-President Donald Trump threatened Black Lives Matter protesters with brutal crackdowns, tweeting at one point that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
It turns out that in private, he was in fact seriously looking into how he could shoot protesters — and that then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper resisted his demands.
According to Axios, Esper wrote in a forthcoming memoir that as protesters gathered near the White House following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Trump asked him: "Can't you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something?"
In an excerpt of the book, titled “A Sacred Oath,” posted by Axios, Esper describes the moment as “surreal, sitting in front of the Resolute desk, inside the Oval Office, with this idea weighing heavily in the air, and the president red faced and complaining loudly about the protests under way in Washington, D.C." He also recalls his effort to try to “walk Trump back without creating the mess I was trying to avoid."
Trump's inability to build coalitions and play the game of winning over government bureaucracy worked against him.
The exchange is a chilling one. One of the most notorious moments of Trump’s presidency was when he called for the National Guard to "dominate the streets,” effectively arguing that he was considering invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty forces to put down protests. It was never clear precisely how close Trump was to following through on his threats, but the exchange with Esper reveals how serious the former president was about trying to find a way to turn the U.S. into a full-fledged police state, and the walls he ran into as he tried to do it.
Esper’s pushback is also a reminder of the national security establishment’s distaste for Trump's authoritarian political style — a phenomenon that served as a safeguard against Trump’s attempts at staying in office indefinitely.
Defense and intelligence community officials tend to take a conservative security view of the world in that they are trained to think about the world in terms of threats and how to counter them through the use of force. But many of them also tend to favor propriety, attentiveness to law, and strong adherence to the kinds of institutional norms that Trump was so eager to buck. They also tend to reflect a signature trend of the Trump era — more educated Americans skew anti-Trump.
While the military generally leans heavily Republican, during the Trump era polling revealed that Trump was unpopular among the military’s officer corps. A Military Times poll in 2020 found that more than half of the military’s officer corps said they strongly disapproved of the president. Some scholars have drawn a link between that disapproval pattern and the fact that military officers tend to be highly educated — one needs a four-year degree to become an officer, and nearly half have advanced degrees.
“Maybe it’s no surprise that a highly educated officer corps with advanced instruction in ethics and leadership might not approve of a president who appears to be violating some of those norms,” wrote Carrie Lee, a scholar at the U.S. Air War College, when observing this trend in 2017.
Esper himself perfectly embodies this Trump-skeptical demographic, as a highly educated former military officer with extended time in government.
Trump was hoping to use force in outrageously abusive ways to quash political dissent and steer the country toward overt personalist authoritarianism. But top policymakers in the national security establishment weren't eager to hand over the keys. Esper repeatedly defied Trump's agenda and publicly opposed authorizing the Insurrection Act. His decision to disclose this conversation with Trump in his book further demonstrates his commitment to trying to counter the authoritarian style Trump embodies.
The episode is a window into how Trump's alienation of top national security officials helped keep the likelihood of a successful coup relatively low: It’s hard to imagine a successful attempt to wrest the republic from the will of the people without the cooperation or at least tacit approval of the military.
Trump's inability to build coalitions and play the game of winning over government bureaucracy worked against him. His impulsive, personalist authoritarian vision had a constituency in his hardcore political base. But he lacked the backing of key figures in the government and federal agencies in order to bring that vision to life.