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Trump sought pre-election strike on senior Iranian commander, says ex-Pentagon chief

In new book, Mark Esper claims then-national security adviser O’Brien wanted to ‘create news’ ahead of 2020 vote to boost former US president’s chance of winning

In this photo provided by the White House, US President Donald Trump is joined by from left, national security adviser Robert O'Brien, Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary mark Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and  Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, Deputy Director for Special Operations on the Joint Staff, October 26, 2019, in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, as they monitor developments in the US Special Operations forces raid that took out Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (Shealah Craighead/The White House via AP)
In this photo provided by the White House, US President Donald Trump is joined by from left, national security adviser Robert O'Brien, Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary mark Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Brig. Gen. Marcus Evans, Deputy Director for Special Operations on the Joint Staff, October 26, 2019, in the Situation Room of the White House in Washington, as they monitor developments in the US Special Operations forces raid that took out Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (Shealah Craighead/The White House via AP)

Donald Trump wanted to strike a senior Iranian military commander in August 2020, several months before the US presidential election, his former secretary of defense has claimed in a new book.

An advance copy of “A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Defense Secretary in Extraordinary Times,” by Mark Esper was obtained by The Guardian.

According to the British newspaper, the book portrays Esper as a Trump aide who rejected numerous illegal or ill-contrived plans floated by the US president and his staff, including firing “missiles into Mexico to destroy the drug labs” and dipping the decapitated head of a terrorist leader in pig’s blood as a warning to other Islamist militants.

When it came to the Iranian commander, Esper wrote that General Mark Milley, who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him that then-national security adviser Robert O’Brien called to say that “the president wanted to strike a senior military officer who was operating outside of Iran,” shortly before the 2020 election.

The US had already previously killed Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in a January 2020 strike in Baghdad.

“This was a really bad idea with very big consequences,” Esper wrote of the plan to carry out a strike ahead of the US presidential election.

Then-US secretary of defense Mark Esper, with US President Donald Trump, speaks on vaccine development on May 15, 2020, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

“Milley and I were aware of this person and the trouble he had been stirring in the region for some time. But why now? What was new? Was there an imminent threat? What about gathering the national security team to discuss this?” he added

“Milley said he was ‘stunned’ by the call, and he sensed that ‘O’Brien put the president up to this,’ trying to create news that would help Trump’s reelection.”

According to Esper, Milley told O’Brien he would discuss the request with the defense secretary and other senior officials.

US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien speaks with reporters at the White House, October 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“I couldn’t believe it,” Esper said. “I had seen this movie before, where White House aides meet with the president, stir him up, and then serve up one of their ‘great ideas’. But this was a really bad idea with very big consequences. How come folks in the White House didn’t see this?”

Esper recalled telling Milley he would not act without an order in writing from Trump, the Guardian report said.

“There was no way I was going to unilaterally take such an action,” he said, “particularly one fraught with a range of legal, diplomatic, political and military implications, not to mention that it could plunge us into war with Iran.”

The former Pentagon chief wrote that the exchange between O’Brien and Milley in August 2020 was “the last time something involving Iran seriously came up before the election.”

US President Donald Trump arrives to address the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing US troops accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, center, and US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Trump’s opposition to Iran was a key plank of his reelection campaign and many feared he would attempt to provoke a war as November 2020 neared.

“Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!” Trump tweeted in September 2020.

Milley said in the book that he believed Trump did not want a war, but said the outgoing president kept pushing for a missile strike in response to Iranian provocations and attacks against US interests in the region.

According to Axios, Esper’s book has been vetted by the Pentagon and reviewed by generals and cabinet members.

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