Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s memoir offers a rare glimpse into the conflict in the White House between those who supported an invasion of Venezuela and those who opposed it. White House officials were said to have believed that the opposition leader, Juan Guaido, was failing to fracture the autocratic regime of Nicolas Maduro.
White House National Security Council (NSC) officials hatched a plan in June 2020 to attack a port in northeastern Venezuela where ships carrying Iranian oil were supplying the regime of Nicolás Maduro, recalls former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in his memoir.
The idea never reached President Donald Trump’s desk, but it was one of several plans that Robert O’Brien, the White House national security adviser in the administration’s final year, discussed with senior officials to respond to the challenge and threat posed by the Venezuela-Iran alliance.
Esper in his book, A Sacred Oath, which was published on May 5, portrays the details of a national security agenda that was marked by the situation in Venezuela and a bellicose posture on the part of officials close to Trump who often did not measure the consequences of their plans.
For the former Secretary of Defense, while Maduro was a dictator and the alliance with Russia, China and Iran were of great concern, “none of these reasons justified risking the lives of U.S. service members.”
An opinion that “I think Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State and (John) Bolton, the former National Security Advisor, shared with me. There were other ways to address these Venezuela issues,” stressed the Gulf War veteran.
Former Secretary Esper declined an interview with the Itempnews Project to discuss his revelations.
Trump has been obsessed with Venezuela since the early days of his administration, with a view to using military force to overthrow Maduro’s authoritarian regime.
It was on August 11, 2017, when he first spoke about the “many options for Venezuela,” including military ones, which since then his most loyal officials privately shuffled around.
However, as the months passed, Pentagon and White House analysts ruled out the use of force in several meetings, which did not prevent the administration from using the military threat as a discursive weapon.
Throughout Chapter 11 – “Desperate Measures” – which is dedicated to Venezuela, Esper reveals previously unknown details about the only meeting between Trump and Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the White House recognized in January 2019 as the “legitimate president” of that South American country.
As the last Secretary of Defense to be confirmed by the Senate in the Trump administration between 2019 and 2020, Esper shares details of meetings where his colleagues in charge of national security contemplated a maritime blockade of Cuba, a bombing of Venezuela, or sending war frigates to Cape Verde to prevent a Maduro ally from escaping extradition.
The 752-page memoir of this war veteran and military industry entrepreneur who became the 27th Secretary of Defense is stellar coming from the holy sanctum of America’s hegemonic power, its armed forces.
In addition, they portray Trump’s final months in the White House as marked by fickle decisions, the course of the pandemic, and the momentum of certain national security officials acting alone on significant decisions.
Esper, who was fired by Trump weeks after losing re-election in November 2020, revealed that the U.S. intelligence community managed in mid-June 2020 that “Venezuela was actively seeking to buy weapons from Iran,” which fueled the warmongering posture of many officials.
“Tehran had not yet approved anything specific, but the list of items apparently ranged from small arms and small boats to long-range missiles that could reach the US. It was the latter that caught my attention,” he wrote.
“O’Brien – the US national security advisor – went straight for the jugular, proposing a military strike on a seaport in northeastern Venezuela, where a large complex for loading and unloading petroleum products on and off ships is located,” the book says.
A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense during Extraordinary Times
The location of the potential attack is blacked out by the Pentagon’s review team, which oversees examining the material to be disclosed by former officials in their publications, to prevent them from sharing classified information affecting national security.
According to Esper, “O’Brien argued: “‘If the ships are too difficult to interdict, then we should look at disrupting the port where they offload their cargo. This would further disrupt their energy supplies and provoke more unrest (in Venezuela). The means could be an air strike or the use of Navy Seals.'”
“From my perspective, we were now clearly in the ‘no war’ category of the red lines I had established in early June, just a few days earlier,” the former secretary criticized.
“We started with the interdiction of Iranian oil on the high seas and now we were discussing a military assault on Venezuela, which had little chance of achieving the real US goal of achieving the ouster of Maduro and installing Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president.”
The planning of the attack, however, came from the National Security Council team led by O’Brien, according to Esper’s testimony, in a desperate move to pressure other agencies and the Pentagon for a go-ahead to finally present it to Trump.
“On the evening of June 19, the DoD policy team received a summary, and the group agreed to develop kinetic and non-kinetic options, both overt and **** that could disrupt Venezuela’s oil and arms shipments. Options would need to include measures that would have a material impact on key industrial and other high-value targets.”
According to Esper, “the Council directed us to prepare these options by June 23 -four days away- and be ready to be brief them to the President in early July.”
“What, where the hell did this come from? My notes said that we, and all departments and agencies present, were supposed to develop ideas to interdict the shipments and that these would not be kinetic. Moreover, the deadline was ninety days away, around September 9. I could not believe that the Council was pushing such an agenda,” the former Pentagon chief recalled.
With a pandemic that was killing hundreds of Americans a day, and five months before an election that could cost Trump his tenure in the White House, decisions at the highest level of security were seen as carrying greater political weight, so Esper appealed to an ally of the president to dissuade the plan.
“I picked up the secure line and called Mark Meadows (White House Chief of Staff). I knew where he stood on this issue, but I wanted to confirm it before I called O’Brien.”
“The chief of staff’s mission was getting the president reelected, so he understood that the political downsides of military action in the weeks before an election outweighed the upsides in most cases. That was particularly true when the president had been promising for four years to get the U.S. out of ‘endless wars,’ not start new ones ‘,” he recalled.
It is common that, prior to meetings with the NSC, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the State Department, the Pentagon delivers military options to be reviewed first at the advisor level, Esper notes.
But in the 16 months, he was in office, “I gave my team orders to never deliver military options, and to not even discuss them” in relation to Venezuela, which became a strategy to appease those who were betting on this measure.
Another element that played a role in rejecting O’Brien’s plan came from the CIA.
In discussions about the proposed attack, the intelligence headquarters argued that the attack would be counterproductive by causing an effect of support for Maduro from the Venezuelan people.
“It was certainly a strong reaction that could escalate into conflict and likely rally the Venezuelan people behind Maduro. The response by the Agency helped pull the discussion away from talk of kinetic action,” Esper wrote.
Kinetic military action is used to define what is involved in active warfare, including lethal force. The phrase is used to contrast conventional military force and “soft” force, including diplomacy, sanctions, and cyber warfare.
The morning it didn’t happen
For President Trump, the figure of Juan Guaidó, whom he recognized as interim president of Venezuela in January 2019, did not amount to a strong leader who could confront Maduro’s authoritarian power, Esper admitted.
“Trump doubted Guaidó’s ability to overthrow Maduro. He then pivoted quickly and spoke admiringly of Guaidó’s wife, Fabiana Rosales, whom Trump had met at the White House in March 2019.”
At the White House meeting between President Trump and Guaidó, plans to remove Maduro from power were discussed.
Trump described her as “‘very young’ and mentioned that she didn’t wear a wedding ring. This seemed to puzzle the president, curiosity was visible on his face, but overall Trump seemed more impressed by Rosales than by her husband.”
On the morning of February 5, 2020, when Trump received Guaidó, Trump asked his guest “what if the U.S. military went down there and got rid of Maduro?” Esper recounts.
What Guaidó answered at that moment could change the course of history, but instead, “he shifted uncomfortably in his chair, caught off guard by the question but doing his best to disguise it,” the former official described.
“Thankfully, his answer wasn’t as clear or forward leaning as I feared.”
“‘Of course, we would always welcome U.S. assistance,’ Guaidó said, but he went on to emphasize that the Venezuelan people -especially those now living next door to Colombia-, ‘want to take back their country themselves,'” Esper wrote was the response everyone heard from the opposition leader in the Oval Office.
In that instant, Esper asked Guaidó if “would your people really be willing to organize, train, and fight? After all, the U.S. military had experience in training foreign forces, and this was a far better solution than using American troops against Maduro.”
Guaidó with President Trump during a meeting in the Oval Office in February 2020 (Photo/White House).
“Guaidó gave a roundabout answer that concluded with him saying ‘yes, they would.’ It didn’t sound reassuring, the former Pentagon chief admitted.
The conversation went from a discussion of a large-scale operation to something more akin to a special maneuver aimed directly at Maduro.
“We have some plans that you (the US government) know we are working on, they are just not ready yet,” Guaidó commented, always according to the book.
“There was also a quick reference to Florida too. As he finished the sentence, he smiled, looked away from me, and made eye contact with Mauricio Claver-Carone, the senior director of the National Security Council who was pressing the hardest for military action.”
“At some point the days, I called Gina Haspel, the CIA director, and recounted this story. I told her that my folks were not aware of any plans being developed by the Venezuelan opposition and if she knew of any. She was not tracking anything either but would dig a little further. If she and I weren’t knowledgeable of any special operation by the opposition, then who was?” Esper asked in his memoirs.
Apparently, Guaido and those attending the White House meeting were referring to the failed Operation Gadeón, which marked the end of a critical phase in the Trump administration’s attempts to get rid of Maduro.
On May 3, 2020, three months after the opposition leader’s visit to the White House, two former U.S. Special Forces soldiers led a group of nearly sixty Venezuelan dissidents in a failed attempt to infiltrate the country in small boats, reach Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, seize Maduro and overthrow the government.
The White House, including Trump himself, disassociated themselves from this plan and denied any involvement, but now Esper’s book casts doubt on the extent to which it was really the National Security Council, led by O’Brien, that was behind it all without the knowledge of his colleagues.
As far as the former Secretary of Defense says he knew, the U.S. government was not involved in Operation Gadeón.
“However, I often wondered if this was the plan referred to by Guaidó’s team at the White House back in February and, if so, to what degree was the National Security Council aware and involved.”
Long before Trump left the White House, former officials who worked in his administration, particularly at the NSC, complained about the chaos and lack of professionalism with which key decisions were made.
Esper’s accounts of not only the situation in Venezuela back up these claims with dozens of examples and situations.
It is increasingly clear that the real possibility of the predicted invasion of Venezuela was buried from the very moment its possibility was conjectured.
That is the most accurate conclusion according to most senior security officials who worked with Trump and who have written about their time in the Republican leader’s administration. Former Secretary Esper’s memoir is the latest reliable sample.