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Sec. Esper Interview With Fox News' 'Justice With Judge Jeanine'

JEANINE PIRRO, FOX NEWS HOST: From the massive explosion in Beirut, to tensions flaring with China, there was a lot to discuss earlier when I sat down for an exclusive interview with our nation's top defense official, Secretary Mark Esper.

Take a look.


PIRRO: Secretary Esper, thanks so much for being with us tonight.

I want to start with events this week.

In Lebanon, it appears a huge explosion, two actually in the port city of Beirut. And officials in Beirut are limiting some individuals to house arrest and saying they have not yet decided whether it's intentional or accidental -- those 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, that highly flammable substance.

MARK ESPER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Well, that's correct, Judge.

First all, thanks. I'm glad we could finally make this happen. We've been talking about it for some time.

But let me say, first of all, what a great tragedy this is for Beirut. It's devastating. You know, well over 100 -- 100 persons killed. So, we mourn for their families. Thousands injured. We hope they'll be OK.

And then the effects just rippling across Beirut, greater Beirut, the impacts it will have on the country writ large, of course, the economy, it's just devastating. And I just mourn for the people.

I will tell you the DOD, State, the entire interagency, at President Trump's direction and leadership, we are going to provide humanitarian assistance for the people of Lebanon. I already have planes lining up to deliver such supplies.

We want to do everything we can to help the Lebanese people in this hour of need.

The bottom line is we still don't know. You know, on the first day as President Trump rightly said, we thought it might have been an attack. Some of us speculated it could have been, for example, a Hezbollah arms shipment that blew up, maybe Hezbollah --

PIRRO: Right, right.

ESPER: -- bomb-making facility. Who knows?

And each day we learn, -- yesterday, I commented that it was looking more like an accident. And it's regrettable that some in the media, not you, but some in the media want to -- rather than taking into consideration this great tragedy that fell upon the American people, are trying to draw divisions within the administration, between maybe me and the president and others. And it's simply not true.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, it's a great tragedy. Under the president's leadership, we're going to do everything we can to help the Lebanese people and to do what's right.

PIRRO: Yes. And, you know, the interesting about it, Mr. Secretary, is I learned that these 2,700 tons of the ammonium nitrate was stored in an area where apparently the port officials in Lebanon, and Beirut specifically, kept saying we want to get it out of here, we want to get it out of here. And they couldn't get a response.

And they say that it was initially on a Russian vessel that was then abandoned which is -- you know, adds a lot more intrigue to it. But I guess we'll have to wait and see about that.

But certainly, the people of Lebanon are in our prayers and mine especially since I have family there.

ESPER: Yeah.

PIRRO: But I want to move on to another area where there is a lot of discussion, and that is China. Certainly, our relations with China are certainly not great. You listen to the president. You listen to Secretary of State Pompeo. Certainly, there's a cold war.

But do you think we are ready for something more than just a cold war?

ESPER: Well, you know, my responsibility as Secretary of Defense is to be ready for everything, to plan for the worst and work for the best.

And it's coincidental that you bring this up because I spent nearly an hour and a half on the phone this morning with my counterpart in China, the defense minister. And we talked about a number of issues -- Taiwan, Hong Kong, South China Sea, a number of other issues.

And so, look, we're not looking for a conflict with China. But when need to stand up for what's right. And the president has done this under his leadership. We're finally standing up for our economic interests, for human rights abroad, for our security interests in the region.

And as I shared with the Chinese defense minister this morning, we're deeply troubled with how China handled the coronavirus and the devastation that it wreaked upon the world, but on the United States in particular, and that we expect transparency and access and cooperation to make sure we understand what happened and do everything we can from preventing from a similar thing from happening again.

PIRRO: Mr. Secretary, though, it doesn't appear that we are getting that transparency. In fact, it appears that, you know, the more we engage with Taiwan, Hong Kong, the angrier they are getting in China, that it appears there may be some future problem between the United States and China.

ESPER: The two big issues I have at least for this, number one, China basically doesn't follow international laws, rules, or norms.

PIRRO: Right.

ESPER: And number two, they don't fully live up to the commitments they make, whether it's with regard to the Hong Kong and how Hong Kong will be treated, its rights respected under the 1984 agreement or the 1997 handover, or their actions in the South China Sea, which we have deemed, their maritime claims, to be unlawful.

PIRRO: All right. Let's talk about Germany, then.

The withdrawal of 12,000 troops from Germany. Initially, it appeared that, you know, this is all about Angela Merkel and that the Russians initially seemed to be happy about it.

But then they found out that you -- that the president and you at his direction are moving those troops to other areas in Eastern Europe, in the Baltic area.

ESPER: That's right. I mean, President Trump's direction in early June accelerated a process we had under way. And I laid out a number of things that I expected the commander to come up with when he presented the plan that we -- we -- that President Trump approved.

And it did -- it addressed issues such as enhancing deterrence of Russia, strengthening the alliance, reassuring allies. And the bottom line is, we basically are moving many troops further east, closer to Russia's border to deter them, and to do those things.

Most of the allies I have either spoken to, heard from or my staff has spoken to see this as a good move, that -- it will accomplish all these objectives that have been laid out.

And -- and, frankly, look, we still have -- we still have 24,000-plus troops in Germany. So, it's -- it will still be the largest recipient of U.S. troops.

PIRRO: Yeah.

ESPER: So, bottom line is the border has shifted as the -- as the alliance has grown.

But let me make one other point here, because folks tend to bring this up in this context. It is important that Germany and other countries pay their fair share. I've said this publicly. I've said it privately. Everybody should pay at least two percent.

And other countries, Germany, case in point, should pay more. It is collective security. It is about our collective responsibility to stand up to the Russians and to do others.

And I've used that metric across the board when I've spoken to allies and partners in other parts of the world, too.

So that's a message we're sending as well that if we are really going to deter the Russians, they need to live up to those obligations. And by the way, that's the same message that not just this administration, but previous administrations as well have conveyed to our European partners.

The president has just -- has just been bold enough to press it.

PIRRO: And I just have a few seconds left.

ESPER: Yeah.

PIRRO: Afghanistan, 4,000 troops coming home by Christmastime, 4,000 of the 8,000 there?

ESPER: We're going down to a number less than 5,000 by the end of November. We need to brief Congress from what that looks like.

As I've said, as Secretary Pompeo has said, others have said, conditions-based. But right now, we think that we can do all the core missions, first and foremost being ensured the United States is not threatened by terrorists coming out of Afghanistan. We can do those at a lower level.

PIRRO: Right.

ESPER: And we're going to proceed along that direction as well. And the chain of command, the military chain of command supports that.

So, we're going to continue this march forward. In the meantime, we see the -- the Afghan peace process. It's not perfect, but it's moving forward, slowly. You know, it's a windy road. It's a rough road --

PIRRO: Well --

ESPER: -- but they're making progress each and every week.

PIRRO: Well, it's certainly time.

Anyway, Secretary Esper, thanks so much for joining us on JUSTICE. We know that you're a very busy man. Thanks so much.

ESPER: Thank you, Judge. Take care.