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The flaw(s) in Trump’s idea about launching missiles into Mexico

Reading about Trump’s plan to launch missiles into Mexico, a quote from a former Trump aide comes to mind: “You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill.”


Within months of Donald Trump becoming president, White House aides quietly let the public know that, behind the scenes, conditions were even worse than Americans realized. As regular readers may recall, it was in April 2017 when one presidential adviser said his job was to “talk him out of doing crazy things.”

A few months later, another White House insider added, “You have no idea how much crazy stuff we kill.” A few months after that, then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said, “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain him.”

These comments came to mind overnight when reading this New York Times report about the sort of things Trump asked his Pentagon chief.

President Donald J. Trump in 2020 asked Mark T. Esper, his defense secretary, about the possibility of launching missiles into Mexico to “destroy the drug labs” and wipe out the cartels, maintaining that the United States’ involvement in a strike against its southern neighbor could be kept secret, Mr. Esper recounts in his upcoming memoir. Those remarkable discussions were among several moments that Mr. Esper described in the book, “A Sacred Oath,” as leaving him all but speechless when he served the 45th president.

Trump, according to the book, raised this idea "at least twice."

As farcical as the anecdote sounds, Esper described a situation in which the then-president, four years into his term, told his Defense secretary that he believed the Mexican government lacked sufficient control over their own country. As such, as Trump saw it, the United States could “just shoot some Patriot missiles” into Mexico and destroy drug labs.

We could do this “quietly,” Trump told Esper, adding that “no one would know it was us.” According to the plan, Trump would simply deny responsibility when asked about the missile strike.

In other words, as recently as 2020, the commander in chief of the nation’s most powerful military, thought it’d be a good idea to launch Patriot missiles — which are not intended for ground targets — into an allied neighbor’s country, to kill non-military targets, at which point he’d lie to the world.

The then-cabinet secretary, not surprisingly, initially thought the then-president was kidding. When it became clear that Trump was entirely serious, it fell to Esper to steer him in a saner direction.

Let’s note for context that the claims included in Esper’s book were thoroughly vetted by the Pentagon. Axios reported this week that as part of the clearance process, “the book was reviewed in whole or in part by nearly three dozen 4-star generals, senior civilians, and some Cabinet members.”

In other words, it’s not as if Trump’s allies can just easily dismiss the former Defense secretary’s claims as ridiculous tales.

Making matters worse is the degree to which the “launch missiles into Mexico” idea is familiar — not in the specific details, but in the ways in which Trump approached problem-solving.

As I argued in my book, the Republican genuinely seemed to believe that every challenge should be addressed through unexamined, overly simplified answers that appealed to his version of common sense.

The immigration system is broken? Build an ineffective wall. Opioids are ravaging communities? Execute drug dealers. Hurricanes are approaching American soil? Hit them with nuclear weapons.

There are too many shooters killing children in schools? Put more guns in the hands of school officials who might shoot back. A virus is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans? Try injecting people with disinfectants.

Russia is waging a brutal and unnecessary war in Ukraine? Slap some Chinese flags on U.S. fighter jets and point them in Moscow’s direction. There are social-justice protesters outside the White House? Shoot them in the legs. Illicit drugs are crossing the U.S./Mexico border? Launch missiles into our allied neighbor.

Who needs thoughtful and responsible solutions, bolstered by analyses and scholarship? In a post-policy model, that’s simply not how challenges are addressed. As far as Trump’s concerned, it’s better to listen to the uninformed instincts of the angry guy at the end of the bar who’s convinced he knows all the answers to life’s biggest problems.