Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is the author of the book “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Mark Esper claims that when he was secretary of defense he heard then-President Donald Trump suggest shooting some Black Lives Matter demonstrators outside the White House and firing missiles into Mexico to combat drug cartels. While Trump denied the first claim, he curiously responded with “no comment” to the second.
These revelations, part of Esper’s recent tell-all book, “A Sacred Oath,” raise an obvious question: If Trump was even insinuating such reckless ideas, why didn’t Esper speak up sooner?
As Esper and other future authors from among the ranks of Trump administration officials apparently bit their tongues, Trump’s presidency came to be defined by a whirlwind of crises, false and misleading claims and conspiracy theories.
In the end, the American people were left further divided into warring camps. On one side stood millions who accepted his evidence-free claim that the 2020 election was “rigged” – and who believed the political and media establishments were out to get the former president. On the other stood those who rejected this claim and remained appalled by Trump’s record of bullying and bombast.
The result? A bitterly polarized nation largely paralyzed by their differences.
Esper served Trump’s administration from almost the beginning until nearly the end of his term – first as secretary of the Army and then as secretary of defense. He writes in his book that he was privy to Trump’s efforts to withhold the transfer of military aid to Ukraine (related to an allegation that Trump has continually denied). Though Esper told CBS News and explains further in his book that he kept pressing Trump to release the aid to Ukraine, he did not appear to share the details of those efforts with Congress during the former president’s first impeachment.
Esper wasn’t the only Trump official to hold back critical intel that he later included in a book. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton, in “The Room Where It Happened,” wrote not only did he know that Trump was trying to leverage the aid to Ukraine, but that Trump also actively tried to get Bolton’s assistance in building a Ukraine pressure campaign. (Trump denied giving Bolton such orders.)
Yet few foreign affairs experts are more respected by Republicans in Congress than Bolton is – and his word might have moved some of them toward impeachment. When the House committee leading the impeachment investigation asked him to testify, Bolton refused to speak out without a subpoena – saving what he knew for his book, which was published months after Trump celebrated his acquittal at a White House gathering.
During Trump’s second impeachment trial, it was former Attorney General William Barr who could have played a decisive role. As Barr would eventually write in his book, “One Damn Thing After Another,” “In the final months of his administration, Trump cared only about one thing: himself. Country and principle took second place.” Writing long after Trump stoked the anger leading up to January 6, Barr recalled that in the weeks after the 2020 election, Trump was “beyond restraint” and “reasoning with him was hopeless.”
Given how loyal Barr had been to Trump, no one could have dismissed him as a knee-jerk opponent if he’d come forward with his assessment of Trump’s state of mind. Given his cabinet status, if he had signed an affidavit testifying to Trump’s post-election priorities, he might have persuaded a few Republicans to reconsider their positions during his second congressional trial. But he remained silent, and Trump, yet again, was acquitted – further cementing his hold over the GOP for the foreseeable future.
Like Barr, Stephanie Grisham told the truth so long after her service to Trump was over that voters could not consider what she had to report in making their presidential choice in November 2020. As White House press secretary, Grisham had daily access to the White House press corps and could have shared with any one of them details of a White House she later described in her book, “I’ll Take Your Questions Now,” as “a clown car on fire running at full speed into a warehouse full of fireworks.”
Instead, she actively avoided the press, refused to hold a single briefing (a decision she attributed to Trump) and saved her observations for later publication. To her credit, Grisham has said she regrets enabling Trump and admits she stayed in her job too long.
In fairness, it must be noted that Trump officials were not alone in holding back critical information, which could have informed political debate, for their books.
Journalist Bob Woodward, an associate editor at The Washington Post, saved seemingly newsworthy information Trump told him about Covid-19 for his book “Rage.” In the book, Woodward wrote that Trump admitted in February 2020 understanding the severity of and danger posed by the virus, yet he repeatedly downplayed the threat to the American people for months thereafter.
Given Woodward’s position in a truth-telling profession, his choice to reserve these conversations for his book prompted criticism from colleagues. Woodward pushed back against critics of his decision, telling NPR, “If at any point I had thought there’s something to tell the American people that they don’t know, I would do it.” He also said he couldn’t trust that Trump’s information was true. Trump responded by saying Woodward was a “Democrat” who “works with the Washington Post… you know all about the Washington Post, you don’t get a break with them.”
For his part, Trump has directed a slew of insults at his former administration detractors, too, calling Esper “weak and totally effective,” and adding, “because of it, I had to run the military.” And just as Bolton was set to publish, Trump took to Twitter to say, “Never had a clue, was ostracized & happily dumped. What a dope!” He said Barr, “… never had the energy or competence to do the job that he was put in place to do.” And regarding Grisham, Trump blamed a romantic break-up for her “angry and bitter” turn toward his administration.
In a contest over facts, Trump’s record of false and misleading claims – in excess of 30,000, according to the Washington Post – would favor the book authors. However, their credibility advantage only makes their choice to withhold information at the time more troubling
Each one of them could have drawn serious attention to the former president if they had spoken out during his term in office, but they all kept silent when their country needed them. It now seems that when the truth mattered most, they chose book sales instead.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misrepresented Esper's knowledge of Trump's motivations around withholding Ukrainian aid in 2019. The article has been updated to more accurately reflect the language in Esper's book, "A Sacred Oath."