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Why former Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s 2024 ballot matters

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper is certain that Donald Trump is a "threat to democracy," but he's hedging on voting for Trump's principal opponent.


It’s extraordinary just how much opposition Donald Trump is facing from former members of his White House cabinet — there's no precedent for such a dynamic — but few have gone further than former Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

It was just a couple of months ago, for example, when the former Pentagon chief — who worked with the former president for a year and a half — told a national television audience that Trump is “a threat to democracy, democracy as we know it, our institutions, our political culture, all those things that make America great and have defined us.”

Last year, Trump’s former Defense secretary also told the public that he believes the presumptive Republican nominee is a threat to our national security.

It was against this backdrop that Esper sat down last week with Bill Maher and said, in reference to a prospective Trump second term, “The number one attribute that you will see anybody coming into the administration will be loyalty, and not to the Constitution but to him.” The former Cabinet secretary added soon after that Trump is “a threat to democracy and we should be very mindful of that.”

This, naturally, led the HBO host to ask the appropriate follow-up question: “So you’ll vote for Biden?” As The Daily Beast noted, Esper couldn’t quite bring himself to say yes.

“I’m definitely not voting for Trump, but I’m not there yet,” he replied. When Maher pressed him, Esper doubled down. “There’s no way I’ll vote for Trump, but every day that Trump does something crazy, the door to voting for Biden opens a little bit more, and that’s where I’m at,” Esper said.

Maher seemed rather incredulous — “How could you not be there after what you just said?” the host asked — and it was tough to blame him.

I have no reason to doubt the former Pentagon chief’s sincerity. Esper worked side by side with Trump. He had a front-row seat and learned exactly how the Republican thinks, listens, processes information, evaluates evidence, prioritizes, and makes decisions.

That experience led Esper to conclude that Trump is a dangerous public menace, a threat to U.S. national security, and a threat to democracy itself.

But Esper still isn’t sure whether he’s ready to cast a ballot for President Joe Biden.

The tension between these positions is difficult to reconcile. The decision for the former Defense secretary is entirely straightforward: He can either vote to return Trump to office or vote to prevent him from returning to office. Either Esper will prioritize democracy and the nation’s security or he won’t.

On Election Day 2024, there will be assorted uncompetitive candidates on the ballot, none of whom stand a realistic chance of becoming president, leaving Esper and those like him with a choice between the major parties’ nominees.

There’s an inherent problem with someone effectively saying, “Trump would undermine U.S. national security and create a threat to democracy, but I’m reluctant to vote for his opponent.”

Esper said on the air, in reference to a possible Biden endorsement, “I’m not there yet.” I’ll be eager to see if his position evolves between now and November.