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Transcript: Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper on "Face the Nation," Oct. 1, 2023

Esper says he has "concerns" about Trump foreign policy
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he has "concerns" about Trump's foreign policy ideas 06:53

The following is a transcript of an interview with Trump administration Defense Secretary Mark Esper that aired on "Face the Nation" on Oct. 1, 2023.

MARGARET BRENNAN : We turn now to the former Secretary of Defense under President Trump and author of a sacred oath Mark Esper. Good to have you back with us today. You know--


MARGARET BRENNAN: --We are having conversations about just how politically difficult basic matters of governance are in Washington. And I wonder what sign you think that sends to our adversaries around the world?

FMR. SEC. ESPER: Well, thank you, Martha, Margaret, for having me on this morning. First, let me also salute Dianne Feinstein as we mourn her passing. She was a real leader in the Senate, you know, times she would buck her party, she could reach across the aisle. She was a real leader, from my time on Capitol Hill, and we're going to miss her and we need more people like her. So, again, my condolences and my salute out to her. Look on your question with regard to what our allies See, Vladimir Putin sits in Russia today, and he looks across the landscape. And he sees the United States of America, which is unwilling to spend what it needs to on defense, it is now pulling back spending for Ukraine. We've seen successive Republican votes where more and more Republicans vote against funding for Ukraine. He sees coups in Africa, they're pushing Western militaries out. He has a pro sympathetic or sympathetic Serbia that's massing troops on the border of Kosovo. We had a vote today in Slovakia, a NATO ally in Central Europe, that just picked a Prime Minister who is pro Russian and has promised to cut spending for Ukraine. Look, from his vantage point, the West is fracturing. And he's going to continue to wait out the clock and maybe hope that Donald Trump returns to the presidency.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you specifically about that, because in your book, you write extensively about your frustration with getting then President Trump to support aid to Ukraine. And that was before the full scale invasion. That was when Russian troops were just in the east of that country. He still to this day is not coming out in support of aid to Ukraine. And as we just talked about, Vladimir Putin has said, some of the comments he's made, make him happy. What does that mean, in terms of what we should expect if there is a second Trump presidency?

FMR. SEC. ESPER: Well, I suspect that he will do what he says and that is he will come to office, he will somehow attempt to negotiate a deal between Russia and Ukraine. And that won't fly, there's only one person who can get endless conflict in Ukraine. And that's Vladimir Putin. And he's not about to do that anytime soon. So I suspect Trump will quickly move to end funding for Ukraine and then at some point, he's also going to move to withdraw funding for NATO and maybe even pull out of NATO, which would be disastrous for the United States national security. So for all those reasons, that concerns me and and, of course, we could talk about our allies and partners in Asia as well who will equally be concerned about these type of events.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So I mean, you're clear you're not supporting the former president's bid to return to office. But you know, the governor of Florida, also presidential candidate has, has raised his personal objections to, you know, limitless checks as well. So do you like any of the Republican candidates right now?

FMR. SEC. ESPER: Well, first, let me say there should not be any blank checks for Ukraine. Right. And every all everything we provide should be audited and accounted for. That's just good.--

MARGARET BRENNAN: --as it is--

FMR. SEC. ESPER:--But But look on the on the bigger question. Look, I'm disappointed in some of my party who are not picking up that the mantle of Ronald Reagan, I consider myself a Reagan Republican. Ronald Reagan would definitely support these young fledgling democracies, whether it's Ukraine, in Europe, which is being invaded by its larger, bigger dictatorial neighbor, or Taiwan, in Asia that's being intimidated and threatened by China. That's what Ronald Reagan stands for. I look, I think there that said, I think there are a few Republicans in the debates right now, who I could support, who are better certainly than Trump, and who could beat President Biden and I think for Republicans, we got to quickly find that person rally around them, and then bring the party together and run a strong candidate.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You want to give me a name?

FMR. SEC. ESPER: Look, I think we've seen some good performances from Chris Christie, Nikki Haley. DeSantis Tim Scott, I think there are three or four or five but the Republican voters need to decide who that is. It's not Donald Trump. But I think there are a number of good candidates out there.

MARGARET BRENNAN:I mean, you make clear you see President Trump as a threat to democracy, not just a flawed candidate, a threat to democracy. You've said upon his retirement last week, General Mark Milley, an ally of yours during your time in office, appeared to refer to him in his farewell speech as a wannabe dictator said overstating things a dictatorship.

FMR. SEC. ESPER: Well, look, if you go back the week prior, Donald Trump said that merely for his behavior, whatever he thought that was, was should be punished and he he talked about execution so which was completely unfair. Mark Milley served this country honorably for forty plus years in war and peace moved, dragged his family around 20 plus times. He deserves our respect and admiration and not that type of talk. No less coming from the Commander in Chief, the former commander in chief. So, look, I have a lot of concerns about Donald Trump. I have said that he's a threat to democracy. I think the last year, certainly the last few months of Donald Trump's presidency will look like the first few months of the next one, if that were to occur.

MARGARET BRENNAN: There are a number of stalled military promotions in the Senate, you know, talking about problems with democracy right now. Are you disappointed that even in Congress, Republican leadership hasn't been able to clear that hurdle and get the caucus in line to say that, you know, some of the highest ranking military officers in our country should get the jobs that they've been nominated for?

FMR. SEC. ESPER: Yeah, look, I'm concerned on a few levels. Look, first of all, I think Senator Tuberville is serious and about his concerns over the policy issues. He's had a chance to bring them up for a vote and declined to do that. And I think it's unfair to hold military nominees over 300 now, hostage, if you will, over a policy issue for which that's not the responsibility. That's a civilian responsibility. And so my view is that that should not happen. It's happened in the past by both parties. And I've called on recently, Senator Schumer start moving nominations, which he has, because otherwise, it looks like both parties are politicizing the military. That's my institutional concern. And then, Margaret, if you step back, you ask yourself, look, the Chinese government doesn't shut down. The Chinese government doesn't do continuing resolutions. And they certainly don't hold up their admirals and generals, when they need them as they prepare for potential conflict with the United States. We just look really dysfunctional and we're harming our own readiness in the process. When we look across the international environment.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mark Esper, thank you for your analysis today.

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