Mark T. Esper and Stephen Miller talked military raids drug cartels Mexico

Before he departed office, former President Donald J. Trump at the border wall.

Before he departed office, former President Donald J. Trump at the border wall.

Trump’s Defense Secretary Rejects Plan to Send 250,000 Troops to the Border

Former President Trump’s top national security advisers also pushed him off of authorizing military assaults against drug gangs within Mexico.

President Trump’s military secretary scoffed at the notion.

In the spring of 2020, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was alarmed to learn of a plan being discussed at a top military command and the Department of Homeland Security to send up to 250,000 troops — more than half of the active United States Army and a sixth of all American forces — to the southern border, in what would have been the largest use of military forces inside the United States since the Civil War.

With the coronavirus pandemic raging, Mr. Trump’s immigration strategist, Stephen Miller, ordered the Homeland Security Department to draft a plan for the number of troops necessary to block the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico. It is unclear whether homeland security officials or Pentagon officials determined that a quarter-million troops would be required.

According to numerous former top administration officials, the proposal was communicated to officials at the Defense Department’s Northern Command, which is responsible for all military operations within the United States and on its borders. Officials said the proposal was never formally offered to Mr. Trump for approval, but it was discussed during White House meetings as they reviewed other ideas for sealing the border to illegal immigration.

Mr. Trump’s immigration strategist, Stephen Miller, had encouraged the Homeland Security Department to draft a strategy for the number of troops required to block the borders.

Mr. Esper declined to make a statement. However, those familiar with his chats, who requested anonymity, said he was furious by Mr. Miller’s idea. Additionally, homeland security officers bypassed his office by bringing the concept directly to Northern Command military authorities. Mr. Esper also worried that moving such a large number of troops to the border would jeopardize America’s global military readiness, officials said.

Mr. Esper terminated consideration of the idea at the Pentagon following a brief but contentious confrontation with Mr. Miller in the Oval Office.

By that time, Mr. Trump’s obsession with the southern border was well-known. He has regularly pondered about a moat filled with alligators and suggested shooting migrants in the leg as they reached the border. His advisers discussed using a heat-ray to make the skin of migrants feel warm.

At the same time that officials considered the massive deployment to the American side of the Mexican border, Mr. Trump pressed his top aides to send forces into Mexico to hunt drug cartels, similar to how American commandos have tracked and killed terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said.

Mr. Trump paused only after aides argued that military raids inside Mexico may appear to the rest of the world as the US conducting an act of war against one of its closest allies and largest trading partner, the officials said.

Ultimately, rather than a massive military deployment to the border, the Trump administration exploited an obscure public health provision — which remains in effect today — to refuse refuge and effectively shut off immigration from Mexico during the pandemic. However, when taken together, the concepts discussed that spring demonstrate the Trump administration’s view of the military services as a presidential instrument that might be used to advance Mr. Trump’s domestic political agenda during an election year. Additionally, it indicates a schism between Mr. Trump and his top military officials, who worked behind the scenes to dissuade the president from acting on what they perceived to be hazardous instincts.

Numerous former president’s aides did not reply to requests for comment on this article.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Mr. Trump, was quoted in “Peril,” a recently published book by Washington Post authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, as saying he was frightened the president may go rogue and had mentally degraded.

A vehicle from the United States Customs and Border Protection in Ruidosa, Texas, in 2020.

Now, fresh news indicates General Milley’s concern that the White House attempted to encourage the Pentagon leadership to deploy additional troops to the southwest border, mostly through Mr. Miller and his Homeland Security Department supporters. General Milley’s spokesman declined to respond.

Mr. Esper declined to discuss his role in putting an end to Mr. Trump’s intentions. However, he is also preparing to publish another book in a long line of novels about and from within the Trump White House, detailing his fights with Mr. Trump.

Increased pressure for border troops

Mr. Trump’s military chiefs have publicly stated that they regularly resisted the president’s pleas for additional soldiers to the border for years, claiming that the armed forces were stretched too thin and that the legal justifications for sending military units were tenuous.

The top brass were terrified by what they saw to be the president’s history of military abuse. Mr. Trump dispatched 5,200 troops to the border with Mexico just days before the 2018 congressional elections, angering military officials who feared the forces were being used as political props. And in June 2020, police officers and National Guard troops used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators from Lafayette Square just before President Trump walked over from the White House for a photo op. He afterwards apologized to General Milley, who accompanied him.

Then, in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the first waves of death and disease occurred.

Mr. Trump erroneously claimed as a candidate, long before the virus entered the country, that “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” On March 23, 2020, less than a week after addressing the nation about the virus from the Oval Office, Mr. Trump wrote a tweet in all capital letters: “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDER!”

While the administration pondered how to defend the southern border against the virus, Mr. Miller pressed top Homeland Security officials to determine the real number of troops required to close the whole border. He had previously become annoyed by the agency’s requests for only a few thousand troops at a time.

“What is the real amount you require?” he asked officials, according to individuals familiar with his interactions.

Chad Wolf, who served as acting secretary of homeland security at the time, claimed that at the outset of the pandemic, officials ran a number of “worst-case scenarios,” including what supplies they would require if they were forced to completely block the border.

He stated, however, that he does not believe a formal petition to the Defense Department was ever made for that reason, and that discussions of sending 250,000 troops — or anything close to that number — to the border never reached his level.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper was disturbed to learn of a plan being discussed at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to send up to 250,000 troops to the border.

By the time Mr. Esper questioned Mr. Miller about the use of troops, the administration had already begun to invoke the rarely invoked legal authority known as Title 42, which empowers the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to return immigrants during a public health emergency. Mr. Miller, who had previously triumphed over military leaders over force deployments to the border, did not press the point, according to a source familiar with his thinking.

Mr. Miller declined to comment on the concept of sending military to the border, but emphasized the crucial nature of enforcing the public health regulation in preventing migrants from entering the nation.

“With economies and health care systems collapsing across the globe, our southwest border would have become the epicenter of illegal Covid-fueled migration — one massive, never-ending superspreader event,” he explained. “Rather than that, the border was successfully sealed, and would-be violators and spreaders understood the message and returned home.”

If Mr. Trump had proceeded with the troop deployment, it would have created a force two and a half times the size of the 100,000 American forces stationed in Afghanistan during the country’s two-decade-long conflict. Additionally, it would have dwarfed the American presence in Iraq during the war: At any point in time, the largest number of troops in Iraq was approximately 170,000.

The Defense Department’s ability to manage such a deployment is unknown. The US Army has approximately 481,000 active-duty soldiers, but thousands of Marines, airmen, and other forces are already deployed around the world. Sending 250,000 troops to the border — much of which passes through rugged, underdeveloped terrain — would have also necessitated a massive logistical effort to housing and feed the troops.

Mexican drug cartels are being targeted

In November 2019, criminal cartels in Mexico slaughtered nine members of a Mormon family from the United States — three women and six children — as they journeyed across the Sierra Madre highlands. Mr. Trump and his allies leapt on it as proof of the critical need to close the border, a theme echoed by Fox News hosts and other conservative publications.

“Now is the time for Mexico, aided by the US, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and eradicate them off the face of the Earth. We are simply waiting for a call from your illustrious new President!” Mr. Trump stated shortly after the attack on Twitter.

In 2020, a Border Patrol agent stands near the Imperial Sand Dunes Park’s border wall. Much of the southwest border runs over rugged, underdeveloped terrain.

However, according to former officials who participated in discussions with the president over the topic, Mr. Trump was even more specific about the use of force within the White House.

Mr. Trump repeatedly inquired about sending soldiers into Mexico, prompting top national security advisers to object, pointing out that it would appear to the majority of the world as an American invasion.

Indeed, it would: the US and Mexico have historically collaborated to combat the cartels, typically through joint police and FBI operations at the Mexican government’s invitation. However, despite Mr. Trump’s tweet vowing to wait for assistance from Mexican authorities, there were concerns within the White House that Mr. Trump was implying something different — the unilateral deployment of military force against the cartels without the Mexican government’s authorization.

Mr. Trump’s Twitter vow to “wage war” on the cartels was publicly rejected by Mexico’s president at the time, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

“We greatly appreciate and applaud President Trump and any foreign government that want to assist, but in some instances, we must act independently,” he said.

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