U.S. Military to Trump: We’re Not Your Monkeys

There are new reports that in a Monday morning Oval Office meeting, on the day of the Bible Stunt, Trump demanded the military put 10,000 active duty troops into the streets “immediately” to counter protests. AG Barr, SecDef Esper, and Chair of the Joint Chiefs Milley talked Trump out of this by saying the governors could call National Guard instead. This brought about the inhinged conference call in which Trump yelled at state governors that they were “weak” and threatened to send federal troops if they refused to deploy the Guard. And then to prop up his he-man image, Trump engaged in the Bible stunt.

Talk of using federal troops against protesters has the military up in arms, so to speak. This is not to say the military is about to overthrow Trump in a coup; it is not. And it’s not to say that Trump doesn’t have loyal followers in uniform. But Trump has been put on notice by a significant portion of the brass that he can’t order the military to do anything he wants. The military willl obey a reasonable order, but not every order. The idea of ordering federal troops in U.S. against protesters was a bridge way too far.

But this isn’t the first time Trump and the military have butted heads. It’s a pattern, actually.

At the beginning of his administration, Trump treated the military as some kind of perk of office, like use of the company jet. Here is a Business Insider story from 2017

What has set military members off is Trump’s insistence on saying “my generals” and “my military,” which some say suggests a misguided sense of ownership over the country’s armed forces.

In the past, former military members have voiced their displeasure with Trump’s phrasing. Former Army Officer Mark Hertling recently told Business Insider he found Trump’s language “extremely offensive.”

“The US military belongs to the nation, not the president. We’re not his,” Hertling said. …

…One of the first instances came on Inauguration Day in January — at a luncheon just hours after being inaugurated — when Trump recognized Gens. James Mattis and John Kelly.

“I see my generals, generals that are going to keep us so safe,” Trump said to members of Congress and other dignitaries, before saying to Mattis, “These are central casting. If I’m doing a movie, I pick you General.”

But “my” generals were always a bit cool about being cast as Trump’s trained monkeys, especially when Trump issued orders to them on Twitter. See a post I wrote in July 2017, Did the Joint Chiefs Just Diss Trump?

And it’s not just the brass. The Military Times has been reporting for a while that support for Trump among active-duty troops has been slipping; see stories from October 2018 and December 2019.

And then there was Trump’s repeated demands for a fancy eastern-European style military parade, which he sorta kinda got last year. Clearly, his goal was to surround himself with military glory. Service chiefs were expected to stand near Trump for public display; I assume they complied. He wanted the same thing this year, but the pandemic has spared us, somewhat. Trump has been pushing for a 4th of July parade in Washington; this weekend may have changed his mind. We’ll see.

Let us recall the flap over Edward Gallagher, the “freaking evil” renegade SEAL officer adopted by Trump as his personal military totem. In brief, the Navy wanted Gallagher disciplined; Trump interfered. This led to a convuluted mess, culiminating in Trump’s firing of the Secretary of the Navy. Trump began attacking the Pentagon itself as part of the “deep state” that was out to get him. There was much grumbling on many op ed pages about Trump’s undermining of military discipline and the code of justice.

In December 2018 Trump announced he wanted U.S. troops withdrawn from Syria, which is what inspired General Mattis to resign as Secretary of Defense. More recently there was the shameful episode in which Trump, apparently on a whim, told Turkish President Erdogan that invading northern Syria and slaughtering our allies, the Kurds, would be just peachy with the U.S. I suspect the brass was mortified about that.

I missed it at the time, but shortly after General Mattis announced his resignation,  Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.), a former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, published an op ed at Time titled Why Trump’s Generals Have Abandoned Ship.

In the cases of Generals H.R. McMasterJohn Kelly and, finally, James Mattis–all of whom I’ve counted as not just colleagues but also friends–the details of each individual departure vary somewhat. But the common theme is actually pretty simple: President Trump simply cannot be briefed, staffed, scheduled or organized in a manner that long-serving military personnel find effective.  …

… The President famously does not actually read the voluminous policy papers with which he is presented. From the perspective of a senior military mind, this would be akin to a car refusing to be gassed up. According to multiple reported accounts, Trump’s briefings have to be put in the simplest terms; the traditional complex military PowerPoint slides were anathema to him. The military presents its shared wisdom by detailing a traditional set of information: assumptions, existing conditions, courses of action, centers of gravity and, in the end, the ultimate three options suggested to the decisionmaker; the President prefers to go with his gut. This made for a continuous collision between the President and his generals, and the recent series of decisions-by-tweet (notably including the withdrawal from Syria) truly underscore the impossibility of molding the President’s approach.

See also Top Military Officers Unload on Trump in the November 2019 issue of The Atlantic.

So there has been tension building between Trump and “his” military. The brass hasn’t liked Trump very much for some time. Still, for the most part they were keeping quiet about a sitting president, until now.

After Gen. Jim Mattis’s rebuke of Trump published at The Atlantic, other retired officers felt freer to speak up. For example, eighty-nine former defense officials signed an open letter in WaPo, The military must never be used to violate constitutional rights.

Jacqueline Alemany at the Washington Post wrote,

Candidate Trump once said he gets his military advice from “watching the shows.” President Trump stocked his Cabinet with “my generals.” Now, the president is on the receiving end of a battering ram of criticism from some of those same military heavyweights he once bragged about as he vows to “dominate” those protesting racial injustice — comparing the commander in chief to a wannabe dictator whose actions are endangering the country.

Most recently, Gen. Colin Powell announced he would be voting for Joe Biden. Trump responded with one of his signature juvenile taunts.  See also Dismay and disappointment — A breach of sacred trust by Gen. Vincent K. Brooks (Ret.) at Military Times.

It’s true that most of the people we’ve heard from are retired, but I don’t think there’s any doubt they speak for a large majority of officers and for the Pentagon generally. Robert Burns of the Associated Press wrote yesterday,

Tensions between the White House and Pentagon have stretched to near a breaking point over President Donald Trump’s threat to use military force against street protests triggered by George Floyd’s death.

Friction in this relationship, historically, is not unusual. But in recent days, and for the second time in Trump’s term, it has raised a prospect of high-level resignations and the risk of lasting damage to the military’s reputation.

What are the implications of this development? Well, for one thing, it’s going to be harder for Trump to use the military as part of his re-election campaign. He does have a few trained monkeys like the disgraced Gallagher he can trot out at rallies and photo ops, but there may not be many uniformed generals or admirals willing to get their pictures taken with him now.

See also Franklin Foer, The Trump Regime Is Beginning to Topple, which is worth reading all the way through.

The most important theorist of nonviolent revolutions is the late political scientist Gene Sharp. … In Sharp’s taxonomy, the autocrat’s grasp on power depends entirely on the allegiance of the armed forces. When the armed forces withhold cooperation, the dictator is finished. Of course, the U.S. is far more democratic than the regimes Sharp studied and doesn’t fit his taxonomy neatly. But on Wednesday, the president’s very own secretary of defense explicitly rejected Trump’s threat to deploy active-duty military officers to American streets. It’s among the most striking instances of an official bucking a president in recent decades.

The examples of Serbia, Ukraine, and Tunisia show how even the subservient unexpectedly break from a leader once that leader is doomed to illegitimacy. And to an extent, the cycle of abandonment has already begun. Jim Mattis’s excoriation of his old boss prodded Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska to echo his condemnation of the president. As each defector wins praise for moral courage, it incentivizes the next batch of defectors.

Even if the protests fizzle—and the parade of denunciations comes to an end—it’s worth pausing to marvel at the moment. Despite the divisions of the country, a majority of its people joined together in shared abhorrence of the president, at least for an instant. Sectors of society that studiously avoid politics broke with their reticence. In a dark era, when it seemed beyond the moral capacities of the nation, it mustered the will to disobey.

Last week Lee Drutman of FiveThirtyEight wrote that If Republicans Are Ever Going To Turn On Trump, This Might Be The Moment.

This is one of those rare moments of uncertainty when it’s possible that the wall of Republican support sheltering Trump finally crumbles. It is still unlikely to happen, but as I’ve written before, if it does happen, it will happen suddenly. …

… Most likely, Senate and House Republicans will eventually find a way to defend Trump’s actions, as they have done before (remember the impeachment trial?). Trump may not be perfect, they may say, but the Democrats are much worse. This is the prevailing rationalization of our zero-sum politics.

But in moments like this, when nobody knows exactly what to say or do, a few unlikely public critiques of Trump could have a surprising cascade effect. And if the president continues to transgress widely-shared democratic values — putting congressional Republicans in an increasingly difficult electoral position — we may yet see a consequential crack in the Republican Party.

Especially since public opinion is overwhelmingly on the side of the protesters it’s unlikely Trump will expand his base by continuing to be a dick about them. Remember the Bigger Asshole rule? You can’t possibly be a bigger asshole than Trump.

Steve Bell/The Guardian