Trump Defense Secretary Mark Esper sues Pentagon for censoring his tell-all book

Esper says Defense Dept. rejected his use of Trump quotes and told him to "not use certain verbs or nouns"

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published November 29, 2021 1:55PM (EST)

Donald Trump and Mark Esper (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Image)
Donald Trump and Mark Esper (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Image)

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper filed a lawsuit on Sunday accusing the Pentagon of wrongly censoring his upcoming book about his time in the Trump administration.

Esper, who was fired by former President Donald Trump days after losing the 2020 election, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington alleging that the Defense Department is blocking him from revealing a "full and unvarnished" account of his tenure. The complaint claims that the Pentagon "arbitrarily redacted" unclassified portions of his book without clearly specifying why.

"Significant text is being improperly withheld from publication in Secretary Esper's manuscript under the guise of classification," Esper's attorney Mark Zaid, who represented the whistleblower who triggered Trump's first impeachment, wrote in the lawsuit. "The withheld text is crucial to telling important stories discussed in the manuscript."

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Esper's book, "A Sacred Oath," is scheduled to be published next May. The book's publisher said Esper's manuscript "reveals the shocking details of his tumultuous tenure while serving in the Trump administration" and includes "events and moments never before told."

The lawsuit says the book includes Esper's recounting of a Pentagon transformation and a "White House seemingly bent on circumventing the Constitution."

Esper expressed dismay that the Biden administration has apparently decided to block portions of the memoir.

"I am more than disappointed the current administration is infringing on my First Amendment constitutional rights," he told The New York Times, which first reported the lawsuit. "And it is with regret that legal recourse is the only path now available for me to tell my full story to the American people."

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told the outlet that the agency is aware of the complaint.

"As with all such reviews, the department takes seriously its obligation to balance national security with an author's narrative desire," he said. "Given that this matter is now under litigation, we will refrain from commenting further."

While it is standard practice for former administration officials to submit manuscripts for prepublication review to ensure that books do not include any sensitive national security information, the process is "not supposed to be used to smother embarrassing or politically damaging information from becoming public," the Times' Maggie Haberman noted.

The Trump administration was accused of using the review process to block the release of former national security adviser John Bolton's memoir, which included numerous revelations Trump wanted to keep hidden amid his first impeachment proceedings. The Justice Department admitted in a lawsuit that a career official reviewed the book and found that it contained no classified information, but Trump allies intervened in the process and sought to block the book's contents. The DOJ filed a lawsuit seeking Bolton's profits from the book after he published it anyway, but under the Biden administration, Attorney General Merrick Garland dropped the case in June.

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Esper worked closely with the review office for months but found that the process was taking an unusually long time, according to the lawsuit. He wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in May, saying he was sure the manuscript did not contain sensitive information. But when he received the reviewed manuscript last month, "multiple words, sentences and paragraphs from approximately 60 pages of the manuscript were redacted," according to the lawsuit. "No written explanation was offered to justify the deletions."

Esper said that in subsequent conversations officials were unable to confirm that "the redacted items contain classified information or compromise national security." Some of the redactions, he said, "asked me to not quote former President Trump and others in meetings, to not describe conversations between the former president and me, and to not use certain verbs or nouns when describing historical events."

Esper said he was also instructed to delete his views on conversations with foreign officials and global events that had been "widely reported" and in some cases "were even published by the D.O.D."

Esper asked the department to justify its redactions, but the lawsuit says the office then informed him it had completed its review.

In an email to Austin earlier this month, Esper said that senior officials urged him to meet with review officials in an effort to "try to find compromise language."

"While I appreciate their efforts, I should not be required to change my views, opinions or descriptions of events simply because they may be too candid at times for normal diplomatic protocol," Esper wrote, according to the lawsuit. He argued that his "constitutional rights should not be abridged because my story or choice of words may prompt uncomfortable discussions in foreign policy circles."

Esper also alleged in the suit that some of the stories included in his manuscript started to appear in news reports.

"At least one story, which was more than a year old and known to only a small handful of senior D.O.D. officials, had not previously been publicly discussed, and the timing of the appearance appears suspicious," the suit says.

The complaint adds that the Pentagon "has failed to demonstrate the existence of substantial government interests that would enable it to prohibit the publication of unclassified information within Secretary Esper's manuscript."

Esper, a former lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon, served as Trump's secretary of defense from the summer of 2019 until shortly after the November 2020 election, when Trump purged Pentagon leadership amid an apparent campaign by the former president's allies to involve the department in their scheme to undo or overturn Trump's election loss. A memo obtained by ABC News' Jon Karl shows that senior Trump aide John McEntee advocated for Esper's dismissal over "sins against Trumpism," including that he "barred the Confederate flag" on military bases, opposed "the president's direction to utilize American forces" to respond to racial justice protests last year, and was "actively pushing for 'diversity and inclusion.'"

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By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregation Defense Department Donald Trump Lloyd Austin Mark Esper Pentagon Politics