A Few Good Men. Trump, the Generals, and the Corrosion of Civil-Military Relations
By Max Boot
When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, there was good cause to think that he would be popular with the armed forces. He was, for a start, a Republican, and the military leans heavily conservative. He had also run an ostentatiously pro-military campaign, promising to “rebuild the military, take care of vets and make the world respect the U.S. again!” There were, to be sure, some warning signs of trouble to come, such as when he attacked the war hero John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona (“I like people who weren’t captured”), and belittled the parents of a soldier who had died in combat after they dared to criticize him.
But initially, at least from the military’s perspective, the good seemed to far outweigh the bad. Trump pushed for higher defense spending; sent more U.S. forces and firepower to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; and liberalized the military’s rules of engagement, giving commanders on the ground more freedom of maneuver. Even more eye-catching was his appointment of generals to senior civilian positions: the retired Marine Corps general James Mattis became the secretary of defense, the retired Marine general John Kelly became the secretary of homeland security and then the White House chief of staff, the retired army lieutenant general Michael Flynn became Trump’s national security adviser—and, when he flamed out after just 24 days, was replaced by the then active-duty army lieutenant general H. R. McMaster. Trump, for his part, reveled in the generals’ aura of manliness, hailing “Mad Dog” Mattis (a nickname Mattis hated) as “a true General’s General!”
Some critics worried that the overrepresentation of generals in the administration would impinge on civilian control of the military. But many others celebrated the appointment of these generals, hoping that their presence in the administration would provide the reality TV star turned president with much-needed “adult” supervision.
Things went wrong almost immediately. How that happened—how the promise of smooth civil-military relations devolved into acrimony, backbiting, and bewilderment—is documented in four new books. Two are journalistic accounts: Trump and His Generals, a fair and comprehensive overview of Trump’s foreign policy by the journalist and think tanker Peter Bergen, and A Very Stable Genius, a work of first-rate news coverage and valuable insight by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, reporters at The Washington Post (where I am a columnist). The other two books are memoirs. Holding the Line, by Guy Snodgrass, a retired U.S. Navy officer who served as Mattis’s Pentagon speechwriter, gives the impression of being hastily cobbled together and includes more interoffice politics than most readers will want to know. But it provides a few nuggets that have not been reported elsewhere—such as the claim that Trump told Mattis to “screw Amazon” on a major contract because he was so unhappy with The Washington Post (which is owned by Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos). The other memoir—Call Sign Chaos, by Mattis and Bing West—doesn’t deal with the controversies of the Trump administration at all. “I’m old fashioned: I don’t write about sitting Presidents,” Mattis explains. But the book does provide an expertly crafted account of Mattis’s career, which helps explain why the marriage between Trump and his generals was destined for divorce.
ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
A key turning point in the relationship was a July 2017 briefing for Trump held in what’s known as “the Tank,” a secure Pentagon conference room used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Accounts of the meeting are provided by Bergen (who begins his book with it), Snodgrass (who organized it and was present), and Rucker and Leonnig (who offer the juiciest details). Mattis had summoned the president and his senior advisers to explain why the U.S.-led system of security alliances and trade relationships still benefited the United States. It did not go well. All the accounts agree that Trump, who has a notoriously short attention span and a hair-trigger temper, openly fumed during Mattis’s presentation. According to Rucker and Leonnig, the president lashed out at U.S. allies, telling his generals, “We are owed money you haven’t been collecting!” Mattis interjected, “This is what keeps us safe,” but Trump predictably wasn’t buying it. “You’re all losers,” he spat. “You don’t know how to win anymore.” A few minutes later, the president—who had cited bone spurs to evade service in the Vietnam War—told a roomful of decorated generals, “I wouldn’t go to war with you people. You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
The generals, conditioned not to question the commander in chief’s authority, sat in stunned silence. It was left to then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to speak up. “No, that’s just wrong,” he retorted. “Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.” After the meeting, standing with a few people he trusted, Tillerson called the president “a fucking moron.” When that comment was reported by NBC News a few months later, it sealed Tillerson’s fate….
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper broke with President Trump on Wednesday and said that active-duty military troops should not be sent to control the wave of protests in American cities, at least for now. His words were at odds with his commander in chief, who on Monday threatened to do exactly that.
June 4, 2020 at 2:15 a.m. GMT+2
Although Esper’s declaration was followed by the Pentagon reversing course on pulling part of the 82nd Airborne Division off standby outside Washington, the rising criticism underscored an extraordinary clash between the U.S. military and its commander in chief. On Thursday, an official said the troops in question from the 82nd were going home to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after all…MORE