Esper dismissed the notion as a “hypothetical.” But in an important sense, this isn’t a hypothetical at all.
Here’s the exchange:
REPORTER: My question is not hypothetical. The president is out there with his position. If you get an order, would you resign from office rather than violate the law?ESPER: I’m not going to get into some hypothetical that you’re portraying here. I’m fully confident that the commander in chief will not give us an illegal order. And as I said, the United States military will, as it always has, obey the laws of armed conflict.
The reporter is correct: This is absolutely not hypothetical in the sense that Trump explicitly stated this on Twitter:
Let this serve as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans, or American assets, we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.
It’s important to state as clearly as possible that Trump said this will happen if Iran strikes any Americans or American assets. He also said that “we” have already targeted 52 such sites. (Trump subsequently reiterated the threat.)
Esper’s suggestion that this will not happen — and that it would be “illegal” — presumably means no such plans have been drawn up. So to be clear about what just happened here: Esper didn’t merely say he won’t do this if ordered, he also contradicted Trump’s explicit claim that plans to do this actually do exist.
Let’s also remind Secretary Esper that there is strong evidence that Trump has repeatedly ordered other officials to engage in serious lawbreaking. For instance, just before Trump fired Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, this was happening, according to the New York Times:
The president called Ms. Nielsen at home early in the mornings to demand that she take action to stop migrants from entering the country, including doing things that were clearly illegal, such as blocking all migrants from seeking asylum. She repeatedly noted the limitations imposed on her department by federal laws, court settlements and international obligations.
Nielsen wouldn’t do those things. Now she’s gone.
At around the same time, senior administration officials told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Trump told his then-Customs and Border Protection chief Kevin McAleenan that he would pardon McAleenan if he got caught breaking the law by instructing border agents to block asylum seekers entirely:
Two officials briefed on the exchange say the President told McAleenan, since named the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, that he “would pardon him if he ever went to jail for denying US entry to migrants,” as one of the officials paraphrased.
In some ways, the situation involving Iranian cultural sites is more concrete than those examples involving the border, because in this case Trump publicly stated that plans do exist that would constitute war crimes and publicly threatened to carry them out.
And don’t forget all the skirting of the law that Trump himself has done, from the likely criminal obstruction of justice documented by the special counsel to the dangling of official actions in an effort to pressure the Ukrainian president into doing his corrupt bidding, which may have been illegal solicitation of a bribe.
What just happened with Esper, amazingly, is that Trump’s defense secretary appeared to deny the very existence of war plans that the commander in chief not only alluded to as genuinely existing, but explicitly threatened to carry out.
We should not gloss over how deeply disturbing it is that Trump is out there threatening to use the world’s most powerful military in a manner that’s entirely divorced from any military planning. Indeed, Esper just essentially stated that he will not carry out an order that Trump said he will issue, if he decrees it warranted.
It’s just another day under a thoroughly lawless president.
Update: Trump has now walked back the threat. That’s good as far as it goes, but in some ways this underscores just how unhinged it was that he explicitly claimed plans to do this do exist.