Former US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper published a memoir detailing how the Donald Trump administration repeatedly discussed military attacks on Venezuela.
Esper revealed that President “Trump had been fixated on Venezuela since the early days of his administration,” writing that, “Again and again, Trump would ask for military options” to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro.
Top US officials pressed hard “for military action,” Esper said, and National Security Council meetings on Venezuela “always began with the consideration of military options, rather than on the other end of the spectrum—diplomacy,” Esper wrote.
In addition to direct military strikes on Venezuela, senior US officials proposed attacking with special operations forces, training and arming insurgents to launch an invasion, using cyberwarfare, intercepting ships, and imposing a naval blockade, the defense secretary disclosed.
He accused the Trump administration of “capricious use of the armed forces,” arguing, “All this did was militarize our foreign policy.”
Esper, a former vice president for weapons corporation Raytheon, devoted a 30-page chapter to Venezuela in a book he released this May, titled “A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times.”
Esper clearly wrote the book in a way that portrays himself and the Pentagon in the most positive light, and therefore sought to minimize his role in the disastrous and ultimately unsuccessful US coup attempts against Venezuela. But he did acknowledge some of the very aggressive actions taken by the Trump administration.
Some parts of the memoir were however redacted by the Defense Department, including information about the US hybrid war operations targeting Venezuela.
Trump frequently raised ‘military options for Venezuela’
“Trump had been fixated on Venezuela since the early days of his administration, with an eye toward using military force to oust Maduro,” Mark Esper wrote in the book.
In January 2019, the Trump administration initiated a coup attempt by declaring that little-known right-wing politician Juan Guaidó was supposed “interim president” of Venezuela. (Guaidó has never participated in a presidential election.)
Esper revealed that it was due to State Department pressure that “dozens of other countries recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.” The State Department also pushed the Organization of American States (OAS) to back the unelected coup leader.
The former defense secretary acknowledged in his memoir that Guaidó attempted a violent coup d’etat on April 30, 2019, using “a group of Venezuelan military officials and civilian personnel in an uprising to remove Maduro.” But he conceded that the putsch “failed due to insufficient support from senior military officers.”
“The failure of Guaidó and his fellow plotters marked the end of a critical phase in the Trump administration’s attempts to rid the Venezuelan people of Maduro,” Esper lamented.
He added, however, that “getting rid of Maduro still seemed to be a bucket list item for Trump,” and, “Again and again, Trump would ask for military options.”
Explaining why Trump was so committed to overthrowing Venezuela’s government, the former secretary of defense argued that the US president wanted to control the country’s oil, just as he had publicly justified the continued military occupation of Syria to “keep the oil.”
“Trump simply seemed to view these things as opportunities to make money, which didn’t surprise me, given his business background and view of wealth as a metric of success,” Esper wrote.
The secretary of defense supported the coup attempt in Venezuela, but was wary of the military option.
“I also wanted to see Maduro ousted. However, we had to do it the right way, the smart way,” he said.
Trump admin discussed US support for attempted invasion of Venezuela
In February 2020, Trump invited Guaidó as a special guest to his state of the union address, in which the unelected Venezuelan coup leader was given a standing ovation by virtually all members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike.
When Guaidó met with Trump in the White House, they were joined by Mark Esper. The defense secretary recalled asking Guaidó, “Would your people really be willing to organize, train, and fight?” Guaidó said, “Yes, they would.”
After the Oval Office meeting, Esper disclosed, he, Guaidó, and fellow coup-plotters discussed plans for the United States to train fighters in Colombia to later launch an attack on neighboring Venezuela.
They raised the possibility of “a smaller, special operation targeted directly at Maduro,” he recounted.
Esper wrote: “One of Guaidó’s colleagues looked at me from across the table and said something like, ‘We have some plans you [the U.S. government] know we are working on, they’re just not ready yet.’ There was some quick reference to Florida too.”
Three months later, in May 2020, dozens of right-wing insurgents attempted an invasion of Venezuela, known as Operation Gideon. They were led by two former US Army special operations comandos.
A Venezuelan army defector who helped plan a botched May 2020 invasion, Clíver Alcalá, said the coup-plotters were in touch with the CIA and other US government agencies
They had Washington's approval to try to violently overthrow President Nicolás Madurohttps://t.co/GHYCrcZnm8
— Multipolarista (@Multipolarista) February 2, 2022
The invasion was organized by a Florida-based mercenary firm, Silvercorp USA, which is run by another ex Green Beret named Jordan Goudreau.
Goudreau said in a breach-of-contract lawsuit that he had met with US government officials at a Miami county golf resort owned by Trump, and that they assured him of Washington’s support for the operation.
Lawyers for a Venezuelan army defector who helped to plan the botched invasion, Cliver Alcalá, likewise emphasized that the coup-plotters were in contact with the CIA, National Security Council (NSC), and Department of the Treasury.
In his book, Esper personally denied knowledge of this operation. But he wrote, “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 NSC aware and involved.”
Trump’s National Security Council pushed for attacks on Venezuela
Mark Esper’s memoir “A Sacred Oath” clearly aims to shield the Defense Department from criticism, instead putting much of the blame for Washington’s failed coup attempts in Venezuela on Trump’s National Security Council.
The NSC held meetings “to discuss military options for Venezuela,” and the “NSC team was even more enthusiastic about them” than Trump was, Esper recalled.
The NSC’s senior director for western hemisphere affairs, Mauricio Claver-Carone, “was pressing the hardest for military action,” in “outright advocacy for aggressive action.”
Trump’s neoconservative National Security Advisor John Bolton, an architect of the Iraq War who oversaw the coup attempt in Venezuela, disclosed in his 2020 book, “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir,” that he had personally appointed Claver-Carone.
“Every one of these NSC meetings, it seemed, always began with the consideration of military options, rather than on the other end of the spectrum—diplomacy,” Esper wrote.
The defense secretary said he cautioned against direct military attacks, given the possibility of escalation and potential deaths of US soldiers.
At the same time, however, Esper did avidly back the coup attempt in Venezuela. He also showed an imperialist attitude, asserting in his book, “In my view, we had to maintain our primacy in the Western Hemisphere.”
Despite Esper’s hawkishness, he was apparently not belligerent enough for the neoconservatives surrounding him. “The president felt the Pentagon wasn’t doing enough on this issue —he had been saying it for over three years, others told me,” Esper said.
The defense secretary pushed back, listing the many actions the US military was taking to threaten Venezuela. These included Naval “operations off the coast of Venezuela” and “Air Force B-52 bomber training flights” that were “partnering with allied air forces in the region as a show of force.”
Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien proposed military strikes on Venezuela
The US hybrid war on Venezuela was largely overseen by Trump’s ultra-hawkish National Security Advisor John Bolton, a deeply ideological neoconservative.
Another key figure involved in the coup plotting was Trump’s special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, a convicted war criminal who helped lead the Ronald Reagan administration’s Contra terrorist war on Nicaragua in the 1980s. In his book, “The Room Where It Happened,” Bolton described Abrams affectionately as a close “old friend.”
But in September 2019, Trump fired Bolton, and replaced him with another bellicose veteran of the George W. Bush administration, Robert C. O’Brien.
Esper recalled in his memoir that “O’Brien and his team were pushing hard for some type of military action against Cuba and Venezuela to cut off Caracas’s access to goods and cash.”
In June 2020, Trump and top US national security officials held another Venezuela-related meeting, in which “the NSC proposed again that we pursue a military operation.”
National Security Advisor “O’Brien 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,” Esper wrote. (The name of the port was redacted by the Pentagon.)
O’Brien wanted to “further disrupt their energy supplies and provoke more unrest,” Esper explained, with “either an air strike or the use of Navy SEALs.”
We “were now discussing a military assault on Venezuela,” the defense secretary recalled.
Esper said he opposed any proposals for military attacks, partially because they “could escalate into a conflict and likely rally the Venezuelan people behind Maduro.”
Given these fears, Esper wrote, “We pivoted to less direct options, such as cyber operations, or [REDACTED] activities supported by the United States but conducted by the opposition.”
Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “thought we should look at irregular warfare options, such as the U.S. training and arming of Venezuelan expatriates,” he recounted. (More information about this was redacted by the Defense Department.)
“The United States had a long history with these types of operations. It was an idea worth developing,” Esper wrote.
The defense secretary added, “Milley and I had discussed this several times before.”
US seeks to ‘shut off Venezuela’s oil revenue’ and disrupt alliance with Iran
The Trump administration’s goal “was to shut off Venezuela’s oil revenue,” Mark Esper explained. Illegal US sanctions escalated into a full embargo in August 2019.
The United Nations’ top expert on sanctions, Alena Douhan, would later go on a fact-finding mission to Venezuela, in February 2021. She found that “unilateral sanctions increasingly imposed by the United States, the European Union and other countries have exacerbated the [economic crisis].”
The Venezuelan “government’s revenue was reported to shrink by 99% with the country currently living on 1% of its pre-sanctions income,” wrote Douhan, in her capacity as UN special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights.
But despite this brutal economic embargo, Venezuela’s oil sector did not completely collapse. Part of this was because of support from allies.
Esper noted in his memoir that the Trump administration was furious when Iran began providing support to Venezuela. In 2020, Tehran started sending oil tankers to Caracas, delivering lighter crude and diluents that Venezuela needed to process and refine its heavy crude.
“There was good cause for concern about this deepening collaboration between them, and with Russia and China as well, especially when it involved a country in our hemisphere,” Esper wrote.
“For Trump personally, this was like waving red flags in front of an enraged bull,” he added.
Esper complained about this growing alliance between Venezuela and Iran, calling it “troubling.”
He noted that, back in 2007, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared an “axis of unity” against US imperialism – although Esper was careful to write “imperialism” in scare quotes.
“We needed to keep the pressure on, and find new ways to advance our policy aims,” Esper concluded.
He wrote that “NSC staff pushed the idea of a blockade” – a physical blockade by the US military. Esper said he opposed the policy, noting that “blockades are considered an act of war under international law.”
So the NSC raised the possibility of “interdicting ships that are carrying Venezuelan oil,” suggesting “that the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard identify these ships, stop them, and seize them.”
US officials claimed that Iran, Russia, and China were allegedly using these ships to sell weapons to Venezuela.
In this June 2020 meeting with Trump, the top US officials “agreed to develop kinetic and nonkinetic options, both overt and [REDACTED], that could disrupt Venezuela’s oil and arms shipments.”
This culminated in August 2020, when the US government intercepted four tankers and illegally seized 1.1 million barrels of fuel being sent to Venezuela, allegedly by Iran. This operation was essentially an act of international piracy. Esper praised the criminal action as “a great initiative by Justice and State.”
In addition to intercepting foreign ships, Esper noted that the Trump administration heated up the hybrid war on Venezuela by accusing the Maduro government, without any evidence, of “narco-terrorism” and drug trafficking.
According to Esper, this idea was proposed by Trump’s Attorney General William Barr, a former CIA agent and longtime member of far-right theocratic sect Opus Dei.
Esper endorsed this strategy, writing, “Thank goodness we were now talking about enhanced drug interdiction efforts in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, off the coast of California, instead of something far more dubious. This made a whole lot more sense to me.”
US government-backed kidnapping of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab
In his book “A Sacred Oath,” former Defense Secretary Mark Esper also discussed the US government-backed kidnapping of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab.
In June 2020, Saab was arrested by Cape Verde, at the order of the United States. In clear violation of international law and diplomatic immunity, the Trump administration demanded the extradition of Saab. This eventually succeeded under the Joe Biden administration in October 2021.
Esper admitted that “Saab was reportedly on a special mission to negotiate a deal with Iran for Venezuela to receive more fuel, food, and medical supplies.”
“Saab was a very important player,” Esper wrote. “It was important to get custody of him.”
The former defense secretary recalled that the State and Justice Departments had asked the Pentagon to deploy special operations forces to Cape Verde to make sure that Saab was extradited to the United States.
Without presenting any concrete evidence, some US officials claimed that Russia and Iran were preparing covert ops to try to free Saab and take him out of Cape Verde.
Esper acknowledged that “there was no proof” of this, stating clearly, “I never thought the threat was real in the first place.”
But he agreed to commit teams from US Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the Coast Guard to support Cape Verde and make sure that Saab’s extradition went through.
Trump and the State Department were not content. They wanted more, requesting that the US Navy send a warship to patrol around Cape Verde.
Esper responded, “I don’t support the proposed action. They first have to show me some evidence that Russia, Iran, or Venezuela is planning to grab Saab.”
“The president fired me a few weeks later,” the former secretary of defense wrote. “With me out of the way, the Venezuela hawks pressed my successor for a warship, which he quickly approved. Not long after that, the USS San Jacinto deployed from Norfolk, Virginia, en route to Cape Verde to keep an eye—somehow—on Saab while supposedly deterring outside intervention.”
Esper noted that it cost $52,000 per day to keep this US Navy warship in Cape Verde.