During his campaign for the White House, Donald Trump took the highly-unusual step of blasting America’s top generals, arguing in one debate that they’d been “reduced to rubble” and later threatening to fire them if they didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear. If elected, Trump promised to put top generals into key jobs — and then to give them the freedom to fight America’s wars without micromanagement from the White House.
True to his word, Trump has surrounded himself with a trio of well-respected current and retired generals: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former Marine general best known for a successful tour through one of the bloodiest parts of Iraq; White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general who served three tours in Iraq, oversaw Guantanamo Bay and was a top aide to two secretaries of defense; and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star general in the Army with a celebrated Iraq war record of his own.
The three men’s prominence, and their long history of distinguished service, has led many inside and outside the White House to see them as the adults in the room who would be guiding Trump toward a calmer, more stable, more rational foreign policy than what he alluded to during his campaign.
The three men, in turn, have spent months traveling the globe to reassure allies that Trump hasn’t meant what he said when the president threatened a preemptive strike on North Korea (which terrified Japan and South Korea) or talked about pulling out of NATO and cozying up to Russia (which terrified much of Europe).
But seven months into his term, that conventional wisdom is looking increasingly shaky. Trump is openly at odds with many current and former military leaders in his administration on issues ranging from Afghanistan (the generals want more troops than he’s inclined to send) to his proposed ban on transgender troops (the Pentagon opposes the move).
The disagreements have recently reached a fever pitch over North Korea. Trump is threatening Kim Jong Un’s regime with “fire and fury,” and tweeting that “Talking is not the answer.” Mattis, by contrast, is saying “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” while McMaster has flown to Seoul to personally reassure the South Korean government that Washington wouldn’t do anything rash.
Put another way, a commander in chief nominally in thrall to a trio of powerful generals is instead beginning to feud with them. That’s sparked rumors that Trump might fire both McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a nonmilitary man who has much the same worldview as the generals and has stood with them during internal administration debates.
In some ways, the intensifying fight between Trump and his generals shouldn’t be a surprise. Trump came into office disagreeing with most of the bipartisan consensus held by the national security establishment, including top military leaders, on issues ranging from the future of NATO to the threat posed by Vladimir Putin.
On Afghanistan, Trump and “America First” White House aides like former chief strategist Steve Bannon questioned why the US was even still fighting America’s longest war and opposed sending more troops to the battlefield. On Europe, Trump attacked America’s allies and refused for months to publicly endorse the mutual defense provisions at the heart of the NATO military alliance. On Russia, Trump has broken with his top generals, spies, and diplomats (not to mention Congress) by continuing to say that he believes he can do business with Putin and denying that Russia meddled in the 2016 election or poses a security threat to the US.
Beyond these substantive foreign policy issues, Trump has also clashed with his generals over domestic policy. After the political violence in Charlottesville, Trump steadfastly refused to condemn the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who instigated the bloodshed. By contrast, each of the four-star officers leading a military service (including the Coast Guard and National Guard Bureau) tweeted a statement condemning the violence.
To take one example, Adm. John Richardson, who leads the Navy, said his service “forever stands against intolerance & hatred.” He was quickly followed by Gen. Robert Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, who tweeted that there was “No place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC.”
The statements represented a remarkable break with their commander in chief, who has inexplicably stuck to his argument that those protesting hatred and bigotry were as much to blame for the violence as those who started it. It is difficult to think of a comparable moment in American history where the service chiefs have quickly and unanimously marched out-of-step with their president.
Or take Trump’s ban on transgender troops, which he first announced in a series of vague tweets on July 26 and later converted into an official White House memorandum. At first, senior officers dipped their toes in the waters of civil disobedience by saying they would wait for proper orders from the White House -- never mind the fact that there is no meaningful legal distinction between a tweet or speech or presidential order.
Then the chiefs began to speak: Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft publicly said at a Washington think tank event that his service would “not break faith” with transgender troops, no matter what the president said. Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer — a civilian political appointee of President Trump — echoed his disagreement with the policy, saying that “any patriot that wants to serve and meets all the requirements should be able to serve in our military.”
Other top officers signaled their disdain for Trump’s policy change, in part because they had already reached an outcome they found satisfactory after a review launched during the Obama administration. Notably — and in direct contradiction of Trump’s statement that he was making the change on “after consultation with my generals and military experts” — the top brass said there had been zero consultation and coordination by Trump. Mattis himself was on vacation when the ban was announced.
Trump is following in Bill Clinton’s footsteps. That’s not a good thing.
Ironically, the last time a president roiled civil-military relations this badly was when President Bill Clinton took office and promised to swiftly open the ranks to LGBTQ Americans. The service chiefs and Congress effectively checked him then, enacting “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a compromise measure. However, the Clinton administration was a model of civil-military relations compared to the Trump administration.
Three main reasons explain today’s discord between Trump and his generals, and why such discord is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
First, there are the substantive disagreements between Trump (and his base) and the national security establishment on almost everything under the sun.
As Trump noted during his speech on Afghanistan in late August, both he and his core supporters have wearied of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For all of Trump’s insults hurled at veterans or military families, many who’d served in the wars — or had loved ones who’d fought or died in the conflicts — gravitated toward Trump because he promised to win (or end) these wars and keep the military out of such open-ended conflicts in the future. (Full disclosure: I advised the Clinton campaign on veterans issues during the campaign, and saw this trend first-hand among many veterans I talked with.) When Trump talks about “America First,” he is channeling the resentments and objections of these families whose sons and daughters serve in our military.
Contrast Trump’s substantive views on our post-9/11 wars with those of today’s military leadership, who are human embodiments of the American national security establishment. These men all graduated from the service academies or other top schools; many of them attended top graduate schools, spent tours in top think tanks, and worked alongside top politicians at lower levels as they rose in rank.
Over their decades in uniform, all three military men have come to believe in the traditional foreign policy beliefs that have shaped Washington’s place on the world stage for decades. All have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lost troops under their command — or loved ones — in Iraq and Afghanistan. All see alliances like NATO as an important part of American national security, and Russia as a major threat to it. Their views didn’t change with Trump’s election, and probably won't change going forward. And that means their disagreements with Trump will continue — and grow — well into the future.
The second reason for discord between Trump and the brass is one of character. Put bluntly, the military leaders now occupying high command volunteered to serve at a time when Trump did not. And not only did Trump avoid service by gaming the draft lottery, he actively evaded military service at the height of the Vietnam War in ways that make President Clinton’s letter to an ROTC commander or President Bush’s service in the National Guard look quaint by comparison.
During his campaign, Trump repeatedly insulted veterans and military families. He mocked former POW John McCain by saying “He’s war hero because he was captured … I like people that weren’t captured.” He attacked the family of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq, after Khan’s parents spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Trump even obfuscated about his philanthropic contributions to veterans organizations — at least until the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold called him on it (work that would earn Fahrenthold a Pulitzer Prize).
That has made him a very different commander in chief than the generals have been used to, one likelier to blame them than to have the “buck stops here” mentality of his predecessors from both parties. In his first week on the job, for instance, Trump ordered a risky special operations raid into Yemen that ended with the death of an elite Navy SEAL and dozens of civilians. Trump responded by blaming his generals rather than taking responsibility as commander in chief.
“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” Trump said. “They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do — the generals — who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”
At the Coast Guard Academy’s graduation in May, Trump whined about unfair media coverage to the assembled graduates, who had persevered to reach that stage and would endure more hardship still as Coast Guard officers after graduation. “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately — especially by the media. No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he said.
Generals are loyal to the Constitution. Trump wants them to be loyal to him instead.
Finally, there exists an unmistakable difference in allegiance and values between senior military leaders and Trump.
Senior military officers, like all military personnel (and civil servants, too), swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Beyond this oath, military officers live by a strict code of military justice and ethics regulations which ensures, among other things, that they serve the nation and no one else. Federal ethics statutes make it a felony for military personnel (and other government personnel too) to act upon conflicts of interest.
Senior officers must repeatedly disclose their assets during security clearance investigations and as part of the confirmation process for high rank. By the time they reach 3 or 4-star rank, their allegiance is established and unquestioned.
Trump may swear roughly the same oath, but his first eight months on the job make it clear that he’s in the presidency for himself. Trump’s conflicts of interest continue, despite some meager attempts to create trusts that fall far short of the divestiture required of other appointees. These conflicts arguably create a constitutional basis for impeachment under the emoluments clause to the extent that Trump retains ownership of corporate entities that receive payment from foreign governments.
Trump spends vastly more time at the golf course than in the White House situation room. Worse, he practices the politics of division whenever possible, playing to his base and ignoring (or attacking) the rest of America.
Trump promised to stack with his administration with generals, and has — unusually — kept his word. The problem is that Trump has a fundamentally different worldview than they do, and is a vastly different kind of commander in chief than they've served before. Many critics have long worried Trump would listen to the generals too much. It turns out that he may not be listening to them enough.