Donald Trump’s mockery of retired Adm. William H. McRaven, who masterminded the capture of Osama bin Laden, is only the latest of many disturbing events and trends in a relationship between Trump and the military that is unprecedented, complicated, sometime contradictory – and at this point, cause for serious concern.
McRaven, arguably one of the most revered military officers of the moment, wrote in August about his terrible disappointment that Trump was unable to “rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs,” and had, instead, “embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation.”
Trump fired back over the weekend by deriding McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and making the absurd claim that McRaven should have apprehended Osama bin Laden faster. (Trump could reasonably have criticized the CIA for that, but McRaven was waiting for them.)
As a single data point, it’s a troubling indicator of how Trump’s ostensible respect for military service and service members carries essentially no weight relative to his obsession with political loyalty.
But when it comes to Trump’s overall dealings with the military, it is one of many indicators, all of them flashing red.
Trump uses the military for political purposes, but otherwise cedes control to the generals – undermining two of the most important safeguards of democracy: the military’s detachment from politics; and civilian control of the military.
As commander-in-chief he is both overconfident and ignorant. He is worshipful of the military in general but unfeeling about its individual sacrifices. He surrounds himself with generals, but is threatened by heroes.
Overall, he is putting extraordinary tension on a relationship that is literally life or death for the military community – a community that is already isolated from the civilian population, operates under its own rules, and is now possibly becoming increasingly contemptuous and skeptical of the president.
Consider these elements of that relationship:
- Trump is using troops for overtly political purposes. Before the midterm elections (and Thanksgiving), Trump sent thousands of active-duty personnel to the southern border to counter a non-existent threat from a migrant caravan hundreds of miles from the border. The only and obvious goal was to bolster his campaign of fear-mongering about invading immigrants to motivate low-information voters.
- He also urged those troops to violate domestic and international law by using lethal force on civilians. The political use of troops on domestic soil with orders to ignore human rights is a hallmark of authoritarian dictatorships, not democracies.
- He has de facto relinquished civilian control of the military, turning over virtually all decision-making to the Pentagon, which he appointed a general to run. Civilian control requires personal engagement by a president who has some knowledge of military issues. Trump feels in control, but has no idea what he’s talking about. Consider these two recent New York Times articles. From Sept. 15: “In the second year of his presidency, Mr. Trump has largely tuned out his national security aides as he feels more confident as commander in chief, the officials said.” And from Nov. 16: “top Defense Department officials say that Mr. Trump has not fully grasped the role of the troops he commands, nor the responsibility that he has to lead them and protect them from politics.” His attitude is driving Defense Department civilians out the door.
- He says he wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan and Iraq, but isn’t actually doing anything about it. He is neither returning the troops, nor supporting them. He’s not defining their missions, or insisting that they be defined. He hasn’t visited troops deployed around the world, instead leaving them hanging not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Syria, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere. [Update: A “former senior White House official” tells the Washington Post: “He’s never been interested in going. He’s afraid of those situations. He’s afraid people want to kill him.”]
- He treats the military like his personal fiefdom. He repeatedly refers to “my military,” and “my generals.” He loves surrounding himself with military pomp and generals who flatter him. He treats appearances before military audiences – historically no place for politics or preening — like Trump rallies. “You liked me and I liked you,” he said at MacDill Air Force, discussing the election. He told troops that previous presidents “weren’t letting you win before.”
- He gives lip service to respect for the military, but shows none in his actions. Trump repeatedly expresses “eternal gratitude” to service members, veterans and military families, and campaigns on strengthening the military and supporting veterans. But when it comes to honoring them, his personal comfort appears to be a higher priority. He failed to join other world leaders who attended a Nov. 10 ceremony outside Paris at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, the burial ground for more than 2,000 U.S. dead in World War I, because of rain. Then he skipped the wreath-laying ceremony on Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery, preferring to stay home.
- He seems unable to acknowledge the possibility of genuine heroism. He cares more about who is for him and who is against him. He insults military heroes who challenge him, and baselessly questions their heroism. His unsubstantiated comments about McRaven were nothing compared to his breath-taking attacks on the late Sen. John McCain, a war hero by any definition, who endured years of body-shattering torture during the Vietnam War after his plane was shot down. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump famously said of McCain, a frequent critic. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
- He appears to lack empathy for those who have made a real sacrifice. After Khzir Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq, publicly lectured Trump about the Constitution and his unfamiliarity with sacrifice, Trump attacked the Khan family and insisted that he had “made a lot of sacrifices” by working “very, very hard.” He reportedly told one soldier’s widow on the phone that her husband “must’ve known what he signed up for,” and forgot the solider’s name. He then falsely asserted that Barack Obama didn’t make such calls. He promised one grieving military father $25,000, but didn’t deliver until months later, after a Washington Post story.
- At the same time, in a society with a dramatic and troubling cultural divide between civilian and military communities, Trump’s behavior is giving the military grounds to feel morally superior. A recent Military Times poll found that Trump’s approval rating among active-duty military has slipped, “leaving today’s troops evenly split over whether they’re happy with the commander in chief’s job performance.” Most officers now disapprove.
So what should we make of these data points? How unstable is the situation? And what’s next?
One thing I want to discuss in the coming days: There is a third party in this relationship. It’s called Congress. And while Congress has basically given the president military carte blanche since 9/11, perhaps the alarming state of affairs outlined above – with, never forget, Trump’s finger on the nuclear button – requires a reassertion of Congress’s power to make and end war.