By sending 5,200 active-duty troops to the southern border where there is no invasion and no war zone, Donald Trump is using the military for nakedly political purposes.
“This is using the troops as props,” Jason Dempsey, a former infantry officer now at the Center for a New American Security, told the New York Times.
And not just the troops. According to the Washington Post, Trump is also sending Black Hawk helicopters with “night-vision capabilities and sensors, carrying troops trained in the kind of aerial combat missions used by the military in active war zones.”
The deployment is being called “Operation Faithful Patriot.”
The major theme of Trump’s pitch in the run-up to the midterm elections next week is that this is a nation under siege. He has called particular attention to a ragtag caravan of migrants 900 miles away traveling on foot and hoping to be granted asylum. Sending troops is a way to keep that story in the news, and ratchet up the drama.
This use of troops is troubling not just because it’s a waste of resources, heightens tensions at the border, raises some potentially thorny legal issues, and is flatly embarrassing.
It’s also the first clear sign that Trump, who loves surrounding himself with military pomp and subservient generals, and who treats appearances before military audiences like campaign rallies, also has no compunction about asserting his commander-in-chief authority for overt personal and political gain.
And it could only get worse. Defense Secretary James Mattis is said to have kept some of Trump’s worst impulses in check, but he is widely seen as a dead man walking in Washington, soon to be replaced by someone whose qualifications will almost inevitably include loyalty to Trump.
The New York Times last month quoted “aides” who “said Mr. Trump was pondering whether he wanted someone running the Pentagon who would be more vocally supportive than Mr. Mattis, who is vehemently protective of the American military against perceptions it could be used for political purposes.”
A few weeks later, Trump described Mattis as “sort of a Democrat” in an interview on “60 Minutes” and said “it could be” that he’s going to be leaving soon.
Fundamentally, Trump seems to have no appreciation or even recognition of two of the most important safeguards of democracy: civilian control of the military; and the military’s detachment from politics.
He has put generals in top positions of power – including at the White House and the Pentagon. And he has delegated most – but not all – decisions to military leaders.
After a disastrous mission in Niger in October, Trump said “my generals and my military, they have decision-making ability” – while at the same time blaming them for the mission.
Less than three weeks into his presidency, Trump kicked off a speech at MacDill Air Force Base by celebrating his election victory and referencing polls that showed support from a large percentage of the military.
“We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” he said. “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”
In July 2017, at the commissioning of an aircraft carrier, Trump asked the largely uniformed audience to call their lawmakers to pass his budget.
A few months later, at the Coast Guard commencement, Trump complained bitterly about his treatment by the press and critics: “No politician in history – and I say this with great surety – has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he said. “The people understand what I’m doing – that’s the most important thing.”
In Thanksgiving addresses to troops last year, Trump praised himself: “We’re really winning. We know how to win. But we have to let you win,” he said. “They weren’t letting you win before.”
Will Trump’s next political use of the military be abroad? There have of course already been several questionable acts. Five days into office, he casually approved a raid in Yemen that killed women and children while failing to achieve any of its objectives — then lied about it and used a Navy SEAL’s widow to make him look presidential at his first congressional address. His continued support of the Saudi coalition bombing campaign ravaging Yemen defies any non-political explanation. His April 2018 strikes on Syria raised questions of whether he was “wagging the dog” to distract attention from the Robert Mueller probe.
Trump’s abuse of his commander-in-chief powers will become much more likely if he fires Mattis, replaces him with someone more amenable, and further succumbs to his ulra-hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who has previously called for military action against Iran.
Could Trump even turn to the military for support in a political crisis? And how would it respond?
Two data points from a recent Military Times poll offer some insight into the latter question. Trump’s “approval rating among active-duty military personnel has slipped over the last two years, leaving today’s troops evenly split over whether they’re happy with the commander in chief’s job performance,” the poll found. And officers have a “significantly lower” opinion of him than enlisted troops.