On November 9th, President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper via a Tweet. Five minutes before, Mr. Esper had been notified by the White House Chief of Staff that he was out. Rampant media speculation was unleashed as to why he was dismissed just 70 days before a presidential inauguration was to take place. Speculation covered the usual gamut: Trump fired Esper for the sheer pleasure of firing someone. Esper was fired because of comments made to governors about dominating the “battlespace” in protests. Esper was fired for disagreeing with the President over invoking the Insurrection Act. Or, finally, that Esper’s banning of Confederate flags on military DOD installations, ships, and housing caused Trump to oust him. All of these were said to be things Trump was gravely offended by and that had Secretary Esper to hang by a bare thread at the Pentagon.

Media Fabrications and Misdirections

Firstly, it appears that the above excuses are media-created disagreements between Esper and the president, and in our view, they would not have resulted in him being fired. In context, Esper’s remarks about governors using National Guard troops to dominate the “battlespace” of violent protests is the description of a best practice in preventing peaceful demonstrations from descending into violence in the first place. His point was that if governors were to deal with that violence swiftly they would lessen the chance of violence spiraling out of control. This is also the reason you see “bouncers” at the doors of clubs and bars. It sends the message to troublemakers that trouble is not welcome. This is what Trump was also telling the governors on that call. The media may not have liked the use of that word but the call was about quelling riots that resulted in injuries, deaths, and property damage, which is a feature of “battles.” And on this, the president and Esper appeared to be on the same page.

Esper’s remarks on not being in favor of invoking the Insurrection Act were not a break from the remarks made by the president about using the U.S. military to quell unchecked riots. President Trump had clearly stated that “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” A fair-minded reader will notice the words “if” and “refuses” in that sentence. If the state authorities refuse to act to ensure public safety then it absolutely falls on the federal authorities to fill the vacuum caused by the dereliction of duty by that local government. That would be the duty of any president in that situation under the Constitution.

The media then went into overdrive writing stories about whether Trump could actually use the U.S. military to quell civil disturbances and published opinion piece after opinion piece focused on whether Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act and send in the U.S. military. This is not something that Trump had said he was going to do. Trump said he would be forced to, “if” local authority “refuses” to act to protect public safety. Those are very different things.

Esper then gave a statement about the killing of George Floyd. Among his remarks, he stated that National Guard troops were best suited to deal with disturbances and that the U.S. military would be used only in the direst of circumstances. He added that he did not believe that dire threshold had been met and therefore did not think the Insurrection Act ought to be, or would be invoked. Esper here was not rebuking the president who never said that the invocation of the Insurrection Act was imminent. He was rather rebutting media speculation that President Trump intended to invoke the Act. Simultaneously, the media had made a tortured reading of the president’s tweet disregarding the qualifiers “if” and “refuses.” The media then ran stories saying Esper had broken with Trump who had “repeatedly” threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act and had sent thousands of National Guard and other federal “troops”(law enforcement officers from federal agencies) to quell the riots as proof of his intentions to invoke it. They were forgetting of course that governors command their National Guard units absent a Federal Activation Order and that federal law enforcement officers are not “troops” but law enforcement officers.

The final proof that the media seemed to want to create fights, which did not really exist between Mr. Esper and President Trump, the final example was Esper supposedly banning “Confederate” flags on DOD installations, housing, offices, and ships. The media narrative was that Esper banned the Confederate flag which enraged Trump who is sympathetic to the Confederacy because he and his supporters are racists. But it just didn’t happen that way. The Esper policy directive was not a ban on Confederate imagery but a statement of policy saying what types of flags were permissible excluding any and all that were not specifically permitted by the policy. Permitted flags, would be limited to,

  • Flags of U.S. States and Territories and the District of Columbia
  • Military Service flags
  • Flag officer and general officer flags
  • Presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed civilian flags
  • Senior Executive Service (SES) and Military Department-specific SES flags
  • The POW/MIA flag
  • Flags of allied or partner countries and those used for official protocol purposes
  • NATO flags and those of organizations in which the United States is a member
  • Ceremonial, command, unit, or branch flags or guidons

The approved list excludes by default everything not listed. So, along with the numerous battle flags of the Confederacy, the Star Wars Rebellion Flag and the Gadsen “Don’t Tread On Me” flag would be excluded along with flags that say something as innocuous as, “Eat At Arby’s.”

The purpose of the above is not to defend Secretary Esper or to pretend that his relationship with President Trump was wine and roses. It is to say that the media seemed invested in creating conflicts that may not have really existed or bore on the decision to fire him.

We believe Esper’s firing may have been about something much more serious.

Syrian War
An M1224 MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All-Terrain Vehicle, from 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, watches the border between Iraq and Syria, Nov. 4, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory)

The Syrian Shell Game

As Secretary Esper was being fired on November 9th, a State Department Press Release came out announcing the sudden retirement of Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, who had served for almost two and a half years as the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

Quite a title isn’t it?

Ambassador Jeffrey was not what the foreign service usually describes as “envoy.” Envoys are generally the personal representatives of the president serving a very specific purpose. In that role, they bypass the hierarchy of the State Department and report directly to the president. But Jeffrey was under the State Department’s organization chart and he reported to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In fact, Secretary Pompeo enticed Mr. Jeffrey out of retirement to serve in this position after the resignation of Ambassador Brett McGurk who had resigned along with Defense Secretary James Mattis over President Trump’s directive in October 2019 to end U.S. troop deployments to Syria and remove U.S. forces from the country post-haste. Esper was moved up from Secretary of the Army to Secretary of Defense to carry out those orders.

On November 11th, two days after his announced retirement, Ambassador Jeffrey gave an interview to Defense One where he made a rather shocking disclosure. Jeffrey stated that he and others had been playing a “shell game” to hide from President Trump the actual number of troops still in Syria after Esper had announced their withdrawal in December 2019, just two months after assuming his new position.

We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there,” Jeffrey said in the interview. “The actual number of troops in northeast Syria is a lot more than the roughly two hundred troops Trump initially agreed to leave there in 2019.”

Jeffrey does not say that he acted alone in this. He says “we,” which implicates others in this deception. What he then goes on to say contradicts Secretary Esper’s claim that a withdrawal from Syria even occurred at all:

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“What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal. When the situation in northeast Syria had been fairly stable after we defeated ISIS, [Trump] was inclined to pull out. In each case, we then decided to come up with five better arguments for why we needed to stay. And we succeeded both times. That’s the story.”

We cannot imagine a scenario wherein Ambassador Jeffrey could lie to the President about troop strength in Syria without the active cooperation of Secretary Esper, who would have been giving Jeffrey the actual troop number to lie about in the first place.

We believe that Esper’s sudden dismissal and Jeffrey’s sudden retirement are related, as is the parting shot interview by the envoy just two days after his retirement. In Mr. Esper’s departing memo to DOD personnel, he covered his list of accomplishments, while serving the administration, mentioning Russia, China, and Iran. There was no mention of carrying out the successful drawdown of troops in Syria.

We mark these events with a stunning sense of disbelief. It is one thing to deceive the President of the United States while volunteering to serve in his administration but to brag about it openly as if it is acceptable and normal takes us nearly beyond words. This is a lie told not just to the president but to the American people who elected him as well.

A Soldier, with Alpha Troop, 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, sits in the gunner seat of an M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle in the Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, Nov. 7, 2020. The soldiers are in Syria to support the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) mission. CJTF remains committed to working by, with, and through our partners to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Jensen Guillory)

The Shell Game is Bigger Than Politics

Our first thought concerned the troops deployed in this clandestine manner in Syria. Our military sources inform us that this deception would be very easy to pull off by Esper and Jeffrey. Troops sent to Iraq and Jordan under current Status of Forces agreements with these countries could be diverted to Syria secretly. On paper, they would be training in Amman, Jordan, but in reality, they would be fighting ISIS in Syria.

These lies told to the president about where the troops are and what they are doing have second- and third-order effects. Service records would not reflect their presence in a combat zone which would deprive them of combat pay, medals, and awards. Wounds and injuries they suffer would be classified as routine training injuries or not noted at all. This would be to the detriment of the troops later on when applying for VA benefits or disability at separation. Should a service member be killed in Syria, the government would have to lie to their family about where their loved one was and what they were doing when they gave up their lives. And this would not be a lie to protect national security. It would be a lie told to protect another lie: that we had a lot more troops in Syria than we or even the President know about.

As we witnessed in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, there are often battlespace-specific health issues — think Agent Orange exposure and Gulf War Syndrome — which can plague veterans long after the conflict is over. Soldiers sent secretly to Syria could be exposed to unique health risks. Tracking and treating those long-term health issues would be impossible if their service in Syria were never acknowledged by the government.

That’s unacceptable to us here at SOFREP.

There are times when the government cannot tell us everything about what is going on. The government may keep some secrets as matters of national security. But that is not the same thing as appointees of the president, who serve his administration, lying to him in order to run their own foreign policy objectives around him and in direct conflict with him. That cannot be allowed, no matter who is president. James Mattis and Bret McGurk conducted themselves honorably by resigning rather than carrying out a presidential order they disagreed with.

The same cannot be said of Jeffrey and Esper.

One may publicly oppose President Trump for any number of policy or personal reasons. But you cannot honorably take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution and then lie to and directly undermine the policies of the highest officer elected by that Constitution. In this country, we elect a president who in turn delegates powers and responsibilities to others to act under his authority, not their own. Never their own. To do so is to act outside the wishes of the American voters.

They have no call or invitation to abuse the office they were appointed to and the trust they were given by undertaking their own policies and lying about them to any president we elect.

They are bureaucrats, not kings or lords.

Sean Spoonts and John Black contributed reporting.