Yet again, a top former Trump administration official has published a memoir containing explosive revelations about former president Donald Trump: This time it’s former defense secretary Mark Esper.
And as each tell-all has emerged, it’s been rightly noted that much of this information would have been relevant far earlier – say, when Trump was twice facing impeachment, or in the run-up to both Election Day 2020 and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Critics – even those inclined to like what the books have to say – have gone after the authors for not speaking out sooner, and accused them of cashing in rather than blowing the whistle when it mattered.
Giving that roiling debate, it’s worth looking at precisely what four of them – Esper, William Barr, John Bolton and Stephanie Grisham – said during their tenures, when they left and when they decided to finally speak out.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper
When he stood by Trump: Esper generally steered clear of political matters. But during a call with governors amid racial-justice demonstrations in the summer of 2020, Esper echoed Trump’s call for a heavy-handed approach: “I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal.” Esper soon appeared at a political photo op at a church after law enforcement forcefully cleared Lafayette Square outside the White House. Esper also defended Trump in September 2020 amid a report that Trump had disparaged troops, emphasizing Trump’s respect for troops while not directly denying the report.
When he broke with Trump: Despite the comments on the governors’ call, Esper did internally oppose Trump’s idea to use 10,000 active-duty troops to crack down on the demonstrations, and he acknowledged he erred both in his choice of words and in appearing at the photo op. He also publicly, if indirectly, rebuked Trump’s idea to use the Insurrection Act to quell the demonstrations, as well as Trump’s idea to illegally bomb Iranian cultural sites. Esper also alienated Trump by banning the Confederate flag on military bases, and lent credence to reports of intelligence that Russian soldiers had offered Taliban fights bounties for killing Americans – which Trump had labeled a “hoax.”
What he later wrote: In Esper’s new book, he confirms that Trump floated the idea of shooting protesters in the leg and says Trump also proposed somehow surreptitiously bombing drug cartels on Mexican soil. (He says the latter would be an “act of war” and illegal.) He also writes that Trump wanted to court-martial two prominent generals, Stanley McChrystal and William McRaven, who had criticized him. He has also said in book-related interviews that Trump is a threat to democracy and that Trump effectively incited the rioters on Jan. 6, 2021.
His explanation for not saying these things earlier, and risk getting fired: He told The Washington Post, “I don’t know who is going to come in behind me, and I didn’t have confidence that they would do the things that I was doing – that they would push back. My concern was that they would actually implement some of these outlandish ideas.” But that leads to the question: Why not speak out after Trump fired him in November 2020?
Attorney General William Barr
When he stood by Trump: Over and over, Barr intervened in unorthodox ways in legal matters, in favor of Trump allies. He provided Trump with a politically helpful and misleading summary of the Mueller report. He launched a probe of the Russia investigation itself, which Trump had repeatedly requested. After the election, Barr also ran afoul of DOJ protocol and fed into Trump’s election conspiracy theories by announcing DOJ would investigate “vote tabulation irregularities.”
When he broke with Trump: Barr did decline to hold a news conference absolving Trump of guilt in the Ukraine scandal. And after the 2020 election, he ultimately rebuked Trump’s voter-fraud claims, saying in early December 2020, “To date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
What he later wrote: Under pressure from Trump to resign, Barr had only praise for the president upon his exit in December 2020: “Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance.” In his book, though, Barr more directly rebuked Trump’s claims of massive voter fraud, writing that he compared them to bovine excrement in a meeting with Trump. He also told Jonathan Karl that he had effectively already come to this conclusion when he announced DOJ would investigate such matters in November 2020. He also said publicly, like Esper did, that Trump was “responsible in the broad sense” for Jan. 6.
His explanation for not saying these things earlier: Under grilling from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, Barr emphasized that his resignation came after the electoral college had voted on Dec. 14, 2020. “The idea that something could be done later on Jan. 6 was nonsense. Once the election was locked in on Dec. 14, I tendered my resignation and I knew Trump was going to be leaving office.” But like Esper’s explanation, that ignores how much this information might have been helpful even soon after his departure – both during Trump’s impeachment and in preventing the events of Jan. 6.
National security adviser John Bolton
When he stood by Trump: He echoed Trump’s questioning of Russia’s assistance of Trump’s 2016 campaign, suggesting in late 2016 that it might have been a “false flag.” He also later claimed Trump wasn’t doubting Russia’s interference with his “hoax” talk, even though Trump had clearly done so. He declared Trump’s controversial summit with Kim Jong Un in 2019 had been a success – despite little evidence of policy advances and the PR win for North Korea. He defended Trump saying he took Kim “at his word” that North Korea didn’t kill Otto Warmbier – pretending Trump’s statement wasn’t accepting the claim. And he defended Trump having ordered a strike on Iran and then canceling at the last minute.
When he broke with Trump: Even in supporting Trump’s summit with Kim, the hawkish Bolton was considerably less sanguine about it. Toward the end of his tenure, Bolton increasingly broke with Trump, including most notably on Trump’s push for a peace deal with the Taliban and on Ukraine – though generally he did so privately.
What he later wrote: Bolton’s departure was less amicable than the others – Trump claimed he had fired Bolton, but Bolton said he had offered his resignation in advance – and he offered little in the way of praise for Trump at the time. Shortly after his exit, and amid the brewing Ukraine scandal, a draft of Bolton’s book leaked severely undermining Trump’s claim that his talks with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t amount to a quid pro quo. The book also contradicted a number of top administration officials on the matter. Bolton would go on to say basically all of Trump’s foreign policy decisions were “driven by re-election calculations” and that Trump sought help in his re-election from Chinese President Xi Jinping.
His explanation for not saying these things earlier: Despite it all, Bolton declined to disregard White House objections and testify at Trump’s first impeachment – despite saying he was willing to do so if given the green light. He cited potential legal repercussions and later reflected that he didn’t think his testimony would have changed he outcome of Trump’s impeachment.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham
When she stood by Trump: In her role as a White House spokesperson, this was quite literally her job – though she did it less than most because she never actually held a news briefing. She defended Trump calling so-called Never Trump Republicans “human scum.” When former chief of staff John Kelly criticized Trump, she said, “I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our President.” After Trump suggested a deceased former congressional critic was in hell, she defended Trump as a “counterpuncher.”
When she broke with Trump: As did some others, Grisham resigned after Jan. 6 – on that exact day, in fact – but she later claimed she had been “done” with the White House for six months before. (She had been moved from press secretary to a job on first lady Melania Trump’s team, where she had served previously.)
What she later wrote: She said Trump told Vladimir Putin at a summit, “I’m going to act a little tougher with you for a few minutes. But it’s for the cameras, and after they leave, we’ll talk.” She said Trump ogled a young female staffer and made inappropriate sexual comments about himself and others. She said “the upcoming election influenced every decision Trump made about the pandemic.” She said in book interviews that there was a “culture of abuse” in the White House.” She said she is “terrified” of the possibility of another Trump term and regretted enabling the White House’s dishonesty.
Her explanation for not saying these things earlier: While in the White House, Grisham actually lamented that reporters were “writing books now. I mean, they’re all getting famous off of this presidency.” As for her own book and why she didn’t speak up as much outside that context – particularly about Jan. 6 – she told Business Insider, “I just needed some time to be deprogrammed, and calm, and quiet, and just figure out, you know, where I stood on a lot of things.” She added: “And then I knew I was going to be writing the book and I was put under a pretty heavy [nondisclosure agreement] gag order …”