Esper’s disputes with the agency happened during the pre-publication review of his manuscript, a typical process government officials must go through to receive approval when writing about their service, so that state secrets and other protected information isn’t made public. Beginning in October, a DoD staff member told Esper he needed to make redactions to his book, according to his lawsuit filed Sunday.
Esper said the requested redactions covered quotes from Trump and others, conversations he had with Trump, and his views related to foreign countries. Trump fired Esper by tweet in early November 2020, days after losing the presidential election. Esper’s increasingly tense relationship with Trump led him to prepare a letter of resignation weeks before, in an attempt to fashion a graceful exit in the widely expected event that the President decided to fire him,
several defense sources previously told CNN.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement, “We are aware of Mr. Esper’s concerns regarding the pre-publication of his memoir. As with all such reviews, the Department takes seriously its obligation to balance national security with an author’s narrative desire. Given that this matter is now under litigation, we will refrain from commenting further.”
In the Sunday filing, Esper’s attorneys wrote that making the redactions “would be a serious injustice to important moments in history that the American people need to know and understand.”
But after the Defense Department spoke to him about the redactions, stories about the former secretary’s time working for Trump then leaked to the press, he said, prompting Esper to believe the leaks were meant to “undermine the impact” information in his book would have if it first was made public in his forthcoming book.
Esper added that he didn’t believe the DoD’s proposed redactions were classified information, according to his lawsuit. He said he reached out to the current Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, earlier this month and didn’t receive a response.
Esper has now asked the DC District Court to allow the publication of unclassified information in the book.
A HarperCollins imprint set a publication date of May 2022 for the book, titled “A Sacred Oath,” the lawsuit said.
This is the second time a high-ranking Trump official has had a public standoff with the agency he worked for over information he wanted to include in a book slated for publication. Esper’s dispute arose after the Trump administration ended. A previous situation, where the Justice Department unsuccessfully sued former National Security Adviser John Bolton over a book he wrote that was heavily critical of Trump and did not get full sign-off to publish, played out while Trump was still President and, according to former officials, was disputed as a way to protect Trump politically. The Biden administration dropped the government’s pursuit of Bolton in June.
“It was highly unusual for someone as high as a cabinet official to not have additional opportunities to discuss any expressed government concerns,” Esper’s attorney Mark Zaid said in a statement on Sunday. “Secretary Esper is the highest ranking official who has sued in order to challenge redactions. Unlike [Bolton], Secretary Esper is adhering and advancing the rule of law.”
Esper broke with Trump at various times during his time as defense secretary, including over the former President’s plans to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan, but the rift deepened in summer 2020 when he said he did not support using active-duty troops to quell the large-scale protests across the United States triggered by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police.