Trump’s relationship with the military is dangerously bizarre

A mortar live fire training exercise in Qatar, Nov. 11, 2018. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Jovi Prevot)

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.

A guided tour of Donald Trump’s brain

When Donald Trump speaks extemporaneously, his thoughts come out in a mad tangle of words and sentence fragments, with simple phrases constantly repeated and more complicated ones abandoned mid-way. He almost always returns to the topic of himself, his greatness, his victimhood, and his election victory over Hillary Clinton.

It’s not normal.

It also tells you a lot about Trump’s internal dramas.

“When language is disconnected from meaning, it serves other psychological functions,” writes Justin Frank, an eminent Washington psychoanalyst and author who has made a side business of putting presidents on the metaphorical couch (first Bush, then Obama, and now Trump).

“Behind the tortured syntax,” Frank writes, “are symptoms of several worrisome disorders.”

In his new book, Trump on the Couch, Frank explains:

It’s as though Trump actually interrupts his own thinking with a new thought or association that only he can interpret. He circles around his original idea… a pattern of speech characterized by oblique, digressive, or irrelevant replies to a question. This is sometimes considered a thought disorder, while other mental health professionals see it as indicative of the manic phase of bipolar illness, or even the result of a dependency on amphetamines.

Frank, not surprisingly, begins his book with a deep dive into everything ever written about Trump’s childhood — and finds that his mother was barely there, both in his early life and in the public record. His analysis:

Donald Trump at some point learned that his mother was emotionally unavailable and that his father was absent and critical; combined with his own limited impulse control at school, which interfered with his traditional learning, these factors would contribute to a sense of despair over not getting enough warmth and meaningful nourishment from his earliest caretakers. This despair, in turn, would lead to narcissism, as a defense against shame and criticism, as well as against the need for any introspection that would cause him to face his selfish or hurtful behavior.

In some ways, Frank writes, Trump is still stuck there.

The man we now see before us is an adult with an infantilized worldview: a frightened child who is hungry – for power, for fast food, for admiration, for money, for loyalty. He surveys the world around him with uncanny radar for any aspersion, seeing everything but understanding nothing. I think Trump never got over his hurt and rage at not having had a deep preverbal bond with his mother, and the confidence-building joys that warmth, tenderness, touch, scent or smiles might bring. He has been angry and determined to get his due ever since, spending his life trying to reach his idealized mother.

The symptoms of Trump’s narcissism include “self-centered focus … indifference to others, difficulty imagining the consequences of one’s actions, and shameless bragging.” Trump also rejects the rules and regulations that apply to other people, because he sees himself as immune.

And perhaps most recognizably, his narcissism makes him incapable of empathy:

When a person is as invested in the illusion of his omnipotence as Trump, the capacity to identify with weakness or vulnerability – a requisite for empathy – is too threatening to the delicate balance by which the illusion of omnipotence is maintained.

Why is he so divisive? Because he’s projecting his internal self-destructive feelings. He “must externalize this deep endless conflict, causing unease and ultimately division among others.” (See my November 8 post, It’s time to start ignoring what Trump says – as much as possible.)

What drives his virulent racism and his obvious misogyny?

When… fears and doubts make the individual feel insecure, and he can project his self-doubts and self-hatred onto a group of others, his insecurity is assuaged, he feels more secure by remaining loyal to his own particular group, and hating and fearing others.

That’s doubly the case with women, where Trump exhibits “a defensive means of coping with anxiety stemming from a deep fear of the opposite sex.”

Frank concludes by diagnosing Trump as having an untreated language-processing disorder:

It is my opinion that Donald Trump likely suffers from a subtype of dyslexia – a neuropsychological condition that was likely present and undetected since early childhood. It is a subtle language-processing disorder that affects emotional, cognitive, and social development.

Specifically, it leads to difficulties in understanding what someone else is saying, and in processing experiences.

Children with language processing disorders require attentive parenting to help them manage. Several of Donald Trump’s familiar adult personality traits—including his trademark volatility, lack of impulse control, and insistence that he knows better than anyone else – evoke the recognizable hallmarks of an undetected childhood learning disability.

Now, you may not buy everything Frank is selling, but I think it helps explain a lot about our very abnormal president.

Don’t believe me? Go read, as simply one example, Trump’s November 9 remarks before getting on Marine One – a not terribly atypical 23 minutes of hostility, defensiveness, self-pity, self-aggrandizement, and incoherence. Then tell me Frank’s not onto something.

By making Whitaker acting AG, Trump poked yet another hole in the Constitution that needs fixing

By ramming a sketchy non-Senate-confirmed loyalist into the position vacated by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump has yet again called attention to something that was broken before he got there, but that now needs an urgent fix.

At issue is the Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (VRA), and how it conforms – or doesn’t – to the Appointments Clause of Article II of the Constitution, Supreme Court precedent, and specific agency succession rules.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel today issued its official guidance on Trump’s appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general and – surprise! – determined it to be legal, because Whitaker technically qualified for the job under the third and last option in the VRA, which allows the temporary appointment of any senior staffer who has been at the agency for at least 90 days.

But great legal minds differ – not just with Trump and DOJ, but with each other.

When you’ve got Neal Katyal and George Conway on one side and Stephen Vladeck on the other, then, as Martin Lederman and Michael C. Dorf conclude, you’ve got unsettled law.

Here’s how we got here: After accepting Sessions’s forced resignation, Trump chose not to temporarily replace him with any of the Senate-confirmed officials in the department’s ordinary line of succession – the first of whom would have been Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Instead, Trump chose Whitaker, Sessions’s Federalist-Society- and White-House-installed former chief of staff. As Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society told CNN about picking Whitaker in the first place: “Jeff Sessions needed a reliable conservative.”

Whitaker, it turns out, is also an ethically challenged dark-money-funded political hack with an incoherent and dangerous view of the Constitution.

This is certainly not the first time the VRA has been found wanting. See, e.g., Vacant Reform: Why the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 Is Unconstitutional, in the Duke Law Journal in 2001.

Nor is this the first time that Trump has abused it.

A year ago, David Dayen reported for the Intercept about multiple apparent violations of the VRA, starting with Trump’s placement of Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, atop the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in an acting position. Mulvaney’s one-year anniversary in that role comes up on November 25.

Dayen also wrote that a multitude of acting directors across the government, who were installed without Senate approval, were quietly dropping the “acting” title, while maintaining their leadership roles.

Brian Frosh, Maryland’s attorney general, filed the first legal challenge to Whitaker’s appointment on Tuesday, declaring that “The Attorney General’s succession statute and the Constitution protect the country against exactly what President Trump has attempted to do here – pluck an unqualified and unconfirmed partisan to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer in order to protect the President personally rather than the rule of law.”

And as Dorf, a law professor at Cornell, explains, “even assuming Trump’s brazen moves did not violate the letter of the law or of the Constitution, his actions clearly violated their spirit.” He concludes: “If the courts fail to provide a check, Congress can.”

So members of Congress: Add legislation to fix the federal vacancy-filling process to your list of much-needed post-Trump reforms.

Oversight Watch: Changing the climate on climate change

Eight years after House oversight went dark, Democrats will soon have the chance to bring out the big spotlights and see what the cockroaches have been up to.

Their mission starts with bringing some accountability to a president and his entourage that have had none so far. (See, for instance, this excellent list of arguably the top 12 priorities, from the Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz.)

But there is also a tremendous need for public exposure of failures of American government and corporate leadership that pre-exist Trump, and will almost certainly continue to plague the country once he’s gone.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be asking a number of experts what they consider some of the top priorities for congressional oversight.

Let’s start with climate change.

I had a chance to speak to environmental activist Bill McKibben the other day. His group, 350.org, is having extraordinary, global success with online campaigns, grassroots organizing, and mass public actions to oppose the fossil fuel industry and push for urgent action to slow climate change.

He despairs of any meaningful U.S. legislative action in the near future. “I’m not convinced at this point that there’s political space in our nation for us to deal effectively with the issue at anything like the scale and pace that it demands,” he said.

But he sees huge potential for congressional oversight.

“Getting someone in the administration to answer why we got out of the Paris Climate accord? That would be great,” he told me.

“I would love to have someone grilling the auto industry about why they’re trying to gut Obama’s mileage regulations,” he said. “It’s a classic example of short-term thinking.”

But the most essential step would be to follow up on reporting by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times that Exxon had conducted extensive scientific research confirming the dangers of climate change, even as it publicly spread disinformation and denialism.

Hauling fossil-fuel executives in for congressional hearings? “The power of that is clear,” he said. “That was the thing that helped bring the tobacco industry to heel was the picture of those guys standing there with their right arms raised declaring to Congress that tobacco is just fine for you.”

New York Times front page, April 15, 1994

Impeachment Watch: New book is a guide to removing presidents

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson.

(Starting today, more short posts, including frequent updates about impeachment. Impeachment Watch items will be archived here.)

I wrote about Watergate veteran Elizabeth Holtzman’s new book, The Case for Impeaching Trump,“ yesterday, and noted that it joins several others on the impeachment bookshelf.

Yet another new book on the topic is out today: How to Get Rid of a President; History’s Guide to Removing Unpopular, Unable, or Unfit Chief Executives by David Priess (@DavidPriess). From the publisher’s excerpt:

Looking at how we’ve come to eject presidents across more than two centuries—using means from the partisan to the personal, the institutional to the ad hoc, the fair to the foul—shines a different light on the American political experience. The overwhelming focus politicians, pundits, and scholars put on electing leaders needs to be balanced by attention to the odd mix of elegant and distasteful ways those leaders have left office. Through design or improvisation, presidents have been (or can be) ousted by voters, rejected by their own parties, removed in place by opponents or subordinates, dismissed preemptively, displaced by death, taken out by force, declared unable to serve, or impeached and removed.

Another excerpt, about Andrew Johnson, appears today at Politico. It describes how Johnson, who was impeached by the House but not convicted and removed from office by the Senate, was nevertheless hobbled by his political opponents. Priess writes:

Most of the same mechanisms used to undermine him remain in others’ toolkits today, which means it’s equally true now as it was under Johnson: You don’t have to formally eject an unpopular or unfit president from the White House if you can use various other means to limit the damage he is causing to the country.

Priess is a former CIA analyst and briefer whose previous book, The President’s Book of Secrets, was a history of the Presidential Daily Brief. He is a visiting fellow at the National Security Institute (NSI) at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

The NSI, which hosted a discussion with former director of national intelligence James Clapper and former CIA head Michael Hayden that I wrote about a couple weeks ago, serves as a sort of think tank for the right-wing deep state in exile.

Watergate veteran benchmarks Trump against the Nixon standard – and calls for impeachment

As Elizabeth Holtzman recalls, “there was no will on the part of the House leadership” to start impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon in the fall of 1973.

Then, on a Saturday night in October, Richard Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. The attorney general and his deputy both resigned rather than do so. They called it the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

And suddenly, “the country was up in arms,” Holtzman writes in her new book, The Case for Impeaching Trump. “The American people demanded action from Congress.” The House Judiciary Committee’s investigation, which would eventually lead to impeachment proceedings, began days later.

The lesson there: That supporters of the impeachment of Donald Trump shouldn’t look to the newly empowered House Democrats for leadership – but should be prepared to demand that they take action.

That’s one of many takeaways from Holtzman’s book, which examines — and advocates for — Trump’s impeachment through a Nixon lens. Holtzman, something of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of her time, served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate and went on to a long career as a prosecutor.

Another takeaway, this one considerably more worrisome for impeachment supporters, is that Nixon’s impeachment only happened because “despite President Nixon’s reprehensible conduct, the rest of the system worked and could function as a real check on a rogue president.”

Republican judges “put aside party for country and the rule of law.”

Congress and the press worked: “The Senate Watergate Committee uncovered key facts about President Nixon’s misconduct, and the Senate Judiciary Committee forced the appointment of the special Watergate prosecutor. The House Judiciary Committee voted on a bipartisan basis to hold the president accountable.” Journalists were “bold in searching out the facts and relentless in reporting them.”

By contrast, Holtzman asks:

Will this happen again if we grapple with the Trump presidency? Will the other checks fall into place, including the courts and the Congress? Will the right-wing press, a mouthpiece for President Trump, find its footing on the truth? Will the bulk of the American people still put country over party and person? The answers to these questions are unknown, but they may be the key to whether America retains its vibrant democracy.

Although all that remains very much in question, Holtzman proceeds to lay out a thorough, aggressive, and quite convincing case that by any normal or reasonable standard, Trump has committed several “great and dangerous offenses” that merit impeachment.

Three offenses make it to the top of her list.

On the Russian assault on our election in 2016, she writes:

There are only two suitable responses: unequivocal condemnation and a vigorous defense. President Trump has done neither. His outright refusal to defend and protect us against these attacks is a potentially impeachable failure “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” which rests above all else on the fair and honest election of a president, vice-president, and members of Congress.

On preventing, obstructing, impeding, and abusing the administration of justice, she writes that Trump has

unremittingly sought to manipulate our justice system to protect himself and his family and to punish his enemies—and has persistently tried to deceive the American people about his intentions and actions.

And on bribery and emoluments:

He has refused to separate himself from his business interests, which have received things of value from foreign and US governments, ranging from Chinese trademarks to pay­ments for the use of his Washington hotel, suggesting that the presidency is open for business and that his personal business interests may influence his governmental decisions—all apparent violations of the emoluments clauses of the Constitution and possibly the ban on bribery as well.

Holtzman’s book also serves as a counterpoint to the July release – from the same publisher – of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case Against Impeach Trump.

Dershowitz – the Harvard Law professor whose transformation from Democratic firebrand to Trump defender is a puzzle – badly misreads the Constitution’s language on impeachment, Holtzman writes.

Dershowitz seeks to transform impeachment into a criminal proceeding, importing the trappings of a criminal trial into the process, including a requirement that a president’s guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. He argues that the Constitution’s “explicit words . .. require conviction of a specified crime as a prerequisite to impeachment.” In fact, no words require that, nor has any impeachment proceeding against a president ever raised that as a condition.

Instead, Holtzman quotes Yale Law School professor Charles L. Black Jr., in his iconic 1998 book, Impeachment: A Handbook:

I think we can say that high Crimes and Misdemeanors, in the con­stitutional sense, ought to be held to be those offenses which are rather obviously wrong, whether or not “criminal,” and which so seriously threaten the order of political society as to make pestilent and dangerous the continuation in power of their perpetrator.

One piece of her own past that Holtzman curiously omits is her coauthorship, in 2006, of The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens, where she proposed four articles of impeachment related to illegal surveillance, taking the country to war on false pretenses, reckless indifferent to the welfare of the troops, and torture.

Perhaps she doesn’t want to remind people that pretty much all of Washington ignored her arguments then.

But I don’t think she needs to worry. Impeachment is clearly going to be a major subject of discussion, if not action, in the coming months.

Her book certainly comes at a more opportune time than American University history professor Allan J. Lichtman’s The Case for Impeachment, first published in April 2017.

And it joins a rapidly filling-up bookshelf that also includes three considerably more wishy-washy offerings: To End a Presidency, by Laurence Tribe and Joshua Matz; Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide by Cass Sunstein; and collection of essays entitled Impeachment: An American History.