Top national security aides to former President Trump also talked him out of launching military raids against drug cartels inside Mexico.
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s defense secretary thought the idea was outrageous.
In the spring of 2020, Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary, was alarmed to learn of an idea under discussion at a top military command and at the Department of Homeland Security to send as many as 250,000 troops — more than half the active U.S. Army, and a sixth of all American forces — to the southern border in what would have been the largest use of the military inside the United States since the Civil War.
With the coronavirus pandemic raging, Stephen Miller, the architect of Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda, had urged the Homeland Security Department to develop a plan for the number of troops that would be needed to seal the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico. It is not clear whether it was officials in homeland security or the Pentagon who concluded that a quarter of a million troops would be required.
The concept was relayed to officials at the Defense Department’s Northern Command, which is responsible for all military operations in the United States and on its borders, according to several former senior administration officials. Officials said the idea was never presented formally to Mr. Trump for approval, but it was discussed in meetings at the White House as they debated other options for closing the border to illegal immigration.
Mr. Esper declined to comment. But people familiar with his conversations, who would speak about them only on condition of anonymity, said he was enraged by Mr. Miller’s plan. In addition, homeland security officials had bypassed his office by taking the idea directly to military officials at Northern Command. Mr. Esper also believed that deploying so many troops to the border would undermine American military readiness around the world, officials said.
After a brief but contentious confrontation with Mr. Miller in the Oval Office, Mr. Esper ended consideration of the idea at the Pentagon.
Mr. Trump’s obsession with the southern border was already well known by that time. He had demanded a wall with flesh-piercing spikes, repeatedly mused about a moat filled with alligators, and asked about shooting migrants in the leg as they crossed the border. His aides considered a heat-ray that would make migrants’ skin feel hot.
Around the same time that officials considered the huge deployment to the American side of the border with Mexico, Mr. Trump also pressed his top aides to send forces into Mexico itself to hunt drug cartels, much like American commandos have tracked and killed terrorists in Afghanistan or Pakistan, the officials said.
Mr. Trump hesitated only after aides suggested that to most of the world, military raids inside Mexico could look like the United States was committing an act of war against one of its closest allies, which is also its biggest trading partner, the officials said.
In the end, rather than a vast deployment of the military to the border, the Trump administration used an obscure public health rule — which remains in effect to this day — to deny asylum and effectively shut down entry into the United States from Mexico during the pandemic. But taken together, the ideas under discussion that spring underscore the Trump administration’s view of the armed forces as a tool of the presidency that could be wielded on behalf of Mr. Trump’s domestic political agenda in an election year. And it further reveals the breach between Mr. Trump and his top military officials, who worked behind the scenes to prevent what they viewed as the president’s dangerous instincts.
Several aides to the former president did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
In “Peril,” a recently published book by the Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Mr. Trump, was characterized as saying he was concerned the president could go rogue and had mentally declined.
Now, new reporting reveals General Milley’s frustration that the White House — largely through Mr. Miller and his allies at the Homeland Security Department — tried to pressure the Pentagon leadership to deploy more troops to the southwest border. A spokesman for General Milley said the general declined to comment.
Mr. Esper declined to comment on his role in squelching Mr. Trump’s plans. But he, too, is getting ready to publish another in a long list of books about and from inside the Trump White House, describing his clashes with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump’s military commanders have said publicly that they repeatedly deflected the president’s calls to send more troops to the border for years, telling him that the armed forces were stretched thin and that the legal arguments for using military units were flimsy.
The top brass were frightened by what they saw as the president’s pattern of misusing the military. Just days before the 2018 congressional elections, Mr. Trump sent 5,200 troops to the border with Mexico, angering military officials, who believed 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 clear Lafayette Square of protesters shortly before Mr. Trump walked over from the White House for a photo op. General Milley, who accompanied him, later apologized.
The coronavirus pandemic also played into Mr. Trump’s fixation with the border. As a candidate, long before the virus arrived in the country, Mr. Trump had asserted falsely that “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” On March 23, 2020, just a week after addressing the nation from the Oval Office about the virus, Mr. Trump sent a tweet in all capital letters: “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!”
As the administration debated ways to secure the southern border against the virus, Mr. Miller urged top officials at the Department of Homeland Security to come up with the actual number of troops it would take to shut the entire border down. He had grown frustrated in the past by requests from the agency for just a few thousand troops at a time.
“What’s the number you would really need?” he prodded officials, according to people familiar with his conversations.
Chad Wolf, who served as acting secretary of homeland security at the time, said that at the start of the pandemic, officials in the department were running a number of “worst-case scenarios,” such as what they would need if they had to seal the border completely.
But he said he does not believe a formal appeal was ever made to the Defense Department for that purpose, and he said discussions about sending 250,000 troops — or anything like that amount — to the border never made it to his level.
By the time Mr. Esper confronted Mr. Miller over the use of troops, the administration was already moving toward applying the rarely used legal authority known as Title 42, which gives the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the ability to turn back immigrants during a health emergency. Mr. Miller, who had prevailed in previous clashes with military officials over troop deployments to the border, did not press the issue, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
Mr. Miller declined to comment on the idea to deploy troops to the border, but said use of the public health rule was critical to keeping migrants from entering the country.
“With economies and health care systems faltering across the planet, our southwest border would have become the epicenter of illicit Covid fueled migration — one giant, never-ending superspreader event,” he said. “Instead, the border was successfully sealed and the would-be violators and spreaders got the message and stayed home.”
If Mr. Trump had gone through with the troop deployment, it would have represented a force two and a half times the size of the 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan at the height of the 20-year war in that country. It would have also dwarfed the American presence in Iraq during the war there: The maximum number of troops in Iraq at any time was about 170,000.
It is unclear how the Defense Department could have managed such a deployment. The U.S. Army has about 481,000 active-duty soldiers, but many are already deployed around the world, as are thousands of Marines, airmen and other troops. Sending 250,000 troops to the border — much of which crosses difficult, undeveloped lands — would also have required an enormous logistical effort to house and feed the troops.
In November 2019, nine American members of a Mormon family from the United States — three women and six children — were killed by drug cartels in Mexico as they traveled through the Sierra Madre mountains. Mr. Trump and his allies seized on it as evidence of the need to shut down the border, a message echoed by anchors on Fox News and in other conservative outlets.
“This is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the Earth. We merely await a call from your great new president!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter soon after the attack.
But inside the White House, Mr. Trump was even more explicit about the use of force, according to former officials who participated in discussions with the president about the issue.
Mr. Trump repeatedly asked about sending troops into Mexico, forcing top national security aides to push back against the idea, pointing out that to most of the world, it would look like an American invasion.
In fact, it would: the United States and Mexico have historically worked together to fight the cartels, usually through joint police and FBI operations at the invitation of the Mexican government. But despite his tweet promising to wait for cooperation with Mexican authorities, there were concerns inside the White House that Mr. Trump was suggesting something different — the unilateral use of military force to go after the cartels without necessarily getting the permission of the Mexican government.
Mexico’s president at the time, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, explicitly rejected Mr. Trump’s tweeted offer to “wage war” on the cartels.
“We appreciate and thank very much President Trump and any foreign government that wants to help, but in these cases we have to act with independence,” he said.
David E. Sanger is a White House and national security correspondent. In a 38-year reporting career for The Times, he has been on three teams that have won Pulitzer Prizes, most recently in 2017 for international reporting. His newest book is “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.” @SangerNYT • Facebook
Michael D. Shear is a veteran White House correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was a member of team that won the Public Service Medal for Covid coverage in 2020. He is the co-author of “Border Wars: Inside Trump's Assault on Immigration.” @shearm
Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security. He was also the Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared three Pulitzer Prizes. @EricSchmittNYT