How is that not an impeachable offense?

House vote on Dec. 19, 1998, passing the first of two articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton.
With the House passing to Democratic control and special counsel Robert Mueller getting closer to going public with the results of his investigation, the eventual impeachment of Donald Trump is a distinct possibility.

To political journalists at most major news organizations, however, impeachment is barely worth discussing — and even then, mostly in the context of whether it’s politically feasible, or politically desirable, how it polls, and who the winners and losers would be.

But right now – before Mueller tells us what he’s found out – the media should be abuzz with attempts to establish some baselines about what reasonably constitutes an impeachable offense.

Yes, of course Gerald Ford was technically correct when he said that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

But in the abstract, at least, there ought to be some consensus – or at least some coherent schools of thought – about what can reasonably be said to constitute treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Rather than asking Democratic members of Congress whether they think impeachment is politically savvy,  we should be asking them whether they agree with, say, Watergate veteran Elizabeth Holtzman‘s conclusion that by continuing to operate his businesses, Trump has repeatedly violated the Constitution’s emoluments clause “and possibly the ban on bribery as well.” Or whether they agree, at least in principle, with any of the various draft articles of impeachment here, here, here, or here. (Got any others? Email them to me.)

To the extent that members acknowledge that something Trump has done – like firing the FBI director, or taking children from their mothers at the border, or using active-duty troops to score political points — amounts to an impeachable offense, then the next, obvious question is why are they not impeaching him now, not: would they consider it in the future?

Then again, presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has essentially declared that impeachment is up to the Republicans. “If the evidence from Mueller is compelling, it should be compelling for Republicans as well, and that may be a moment of truth. But that’s not where we are,” she said in an interview with the New York Times Magazine.

So rather than asking Republican members of Congress about impeaching Trump, we should be getting them to say what they themselves consider impeachable offenses – arguably locking them in, when and if Mueller can prove they were committed.

These are straightforward yes-or-no questions:

  • If a president is found to have solicited or knowingly accepted help from a foreign government to influence an American election, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
  • If a president fires a special prosecutor investigating him, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
  • If a president directly orders the Justice Department to prosecute his political rivals, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
  • If a president pardons himself, isn’t that an impeachable offense?
  • If a president promises pardons to potential witnesses against him, isn’t that an impeachable offense?

And, bonus essay question:

  • What level of presidential lying to you consider an impeachable offense?

Keep in mind: Even Trump’s own White House lawyers felt that Trump would likely be impeached if he ordered the Justice Department to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey.

This is not just liberal crazy-talk.

Former Obama DOJ official Harry Litman recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Mueller is most likely to file charges involving criminal conspiracies. “Charges, in other words, that not even the most ardent Trump die-hard could trivialize,” he wrote.

But couldn’t they? It would be harder, certainly, if they were already on the record saying yes, that would be too much, even for us.

Ideally, every member of Congress would be forced to go on the record now, clearly stating what they consider an impeachable offense. This would have all sorts of advantages.

It would help establish, for better or for worse, what Congress considers a punishable abuse of power.

And if you look at the reality, rather than the politics, it’s actually hard to argue that Trump hasn’t already conducted any number of impeachable offenses.

So for most Democrats, it would establish a threshold beyond which there would be no excuse not to proceed with impeachment proceedings — other than cravenness or pure politics. It might even force them to acknowledge that the threshold, by any historically normal reckoning, has already been reached and exceeded.

And Republicans would have to choose between publicly sanctioning obviously impeachable conduct – like helping a foreign government influence an American election – and saying that in this particular case, the rules don’t apply.

So, regardless of whether you think impeachment is politically feasible, or politically desirable, how it polls, and who the winners and losers would be, discussing impeachment – in fact, constantly discussing impeachment, and using impeachable offenses as a metric in measuring Trump’s day-to-day conduct – is a powerful way to avoid normalizing this very abnormal presidency.

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Oversight Watch: Two years of Trump quietly screwing the environment come to an end

U.S. Forest Service firefighter, Nov. 21.
Two years of behind-closed-doors appeasement of the fossil-fuel industry are coming to a close.

Donald Trump’s failure to bury an alarming federal-government assessment of the effects of climate change has only further incited incoming House leaders to blow the lid off government and corporate attempts to block the transformative change needed to save the planet.

Trump’s political enforcers – who have been second to none in their denigration of scientific expertise – were apparently stretched too thin to line-edit the truth out of the 1,656-page assessment, which scientists from 13 different federal agencies had been working on since 2014 under a congressional mandate.

So the White House decided to drop the report – which warns of grave danger to the U.S. economy if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming — on Black Friday, hoping it would quickly fade from public view.

But the timing wasn’t ideal for climate denialists. News organizations still had singularly appropriate visuals handy from the cataclysmic forest fires in California. The New York Times in particular seemed to make a point of leaving climate news atop its home page for the whole weekend.

A major United Nations report early last month projected a terrifying series of consequences including food shortages, wildfires and mass coral reef death within the next few decades. Another UN report just today found that carbon dioxide emission targets set in the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 aren’t anywhere close to being met.

And domestically, even as Trump and his press office blithely wave off the government’s own findings as the work of radicals, a push for a “Green New Deal” by newly elected members of Congress has sparked great enthusiasm and is being further stoked by Naomi Klein, author of the influential anti-capitalist climate-change manifesto This Changes Everything, who says it “might just change everything.”

While getting legislation passed in the next two years remains the longest of shots, House Democrats are eagerly preparing for a whole new world of oversight.

Presumptive House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi is talking about recommissioning the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to focus efforts.

Other committee leaders are vowing to examine Trump’s efforts to undo Obama-era regulations to curb planet-warming emissions from tailpipes and power-plant smokestacks. House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking Democrat Frank Pallone sent the EPA a letter last week requesting information about “how these decisions were made.” In a few weeks, he’ll have subpoena power.

And one of the most promising avenues for oversight may be to follow leads uncovered by journalists and now being pursued through a wave of legal challenges demanding accountability from fossil fuel companies for the damage caused by climate change.

In the three years since Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times issued blockbuster reports that Exxon had conducted extensive scientific research confirming the dangers of climate change — even as it publicly spread disinformation and denialism – New York State has sued Exxon for fraud and several cities, counties, and groups of young people have begun litigation against the oil companies and state and federal government.

The grassroots environmental group is collecting signatures for its request to House Democrats to, among other things, “investigate Exxon and other big polluters for misleading the public and wrecking the climate.”

(See also my Nov. 13 post, Changing the climate on climate change.)

The election of Donald Trump was undeniably a disastrous setback for efforts to combat climate change, from his slap-in-the-face withdrawal from the Paris Climate accords to his selection of political appointees devoted to opposing the work of the agencies they led.

But how far would Hillary Clinton have gotten, realistically, especially with a hostile Congress?

Trump’s overt attacks on norms and facts and global agreements may have in some ways changed the rules and clarified the stakes. Perhaps the passionate, idealistic backlash will lead to bigger and more effective solutions than seemed poltically possible before Trump. And perhaps it won’t be too late to change everything.

What shared elements of Trump foreign policy are former Obama officials now willing to renounce?

Obama meets with Saudi King Abdullah in 2014.

The nearly universal revulsion that greeted the latest expression of Donald Trump’s foreign policy offers Democratic leaders a golden opportunity to review and renounce those elements of it that they have historically shared.

Trump’s indecent embrace of Saudi leader and journalist-executioner Mohammad bin Salman, after all, is different in scale but not in substance from previous Democratic administrations’ unseemly realpolitik alliances with Middle Eastern despots.

Indeed, Trump could reasonably find vindication and validation from Barack Obama’s tenure alone for quite a few of his other foreign policy sins, including flouting Congressional war powers, pointless adventurism abroad, illegal air strikes in countries where we are not at war, the de facto subordination of human rights to other interests, and accelerating the nuclear arms race.

I’ve been on the lookout for quite a while now for any signs of regret from former Obama officials for continuing – and in some cases accelerating – post-9/11 assertions of vast, unilateral executive power.

Now that they can not just imagine — but actually see — those powers in the hands of someone so manifestly unstable, don’t they wonder if maybe they abrogated too much power for the presidency after all?

Until recently, there were very few signs of it.

So it was fascinating to read a letter from 30 former senior Obama officials earlier this month not simply calling for Trump to end American military support for the Saudi coalition’s barbaric bombing campaign in Yemen – but acknowledging their responsibility for initiating that support, and recognizing that it was a mistake.

The letter was published on the website of National Security Action, a relatively new online home for the Democratic foreign policy apparatus in exile. Signatories included former deputy national security advisers Tony Blinken, Avril Haines, and Ben Rhodes, and former U.N. ambassadors Samantha Power and Susan Rice. It begins bluntly:

We did not intend U.S. support to the coalition to become a blank check. But today, as civilian casualties have continued to rise and there is no end to the conflict in sight, it is clear that is precisely what happened. Given this reality, the United States should end participation in or any form of support for this conflict, beyond humanitarian assistance for the Yemeni people. It is past time for America’s role in this disastrous war in Yemen to end.

So why did they do it in the first place? Unfortunately, their explanation is defensive and not entirely accurate:

The Obama administration provided some intelligence, refueling, and logistical assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, in response to a legitimate threat posed by missiles on the Saudi border and the Houthi overthrow of the Yemeni government, with support from Iran. We also did so in an effort to gain leverage to push the coalition to abide by international humanitarian law and support parallel diplomatic efforts.

In reality, what the U.S. did was take sides in a bloody civil war that quickly turned Yemen into a humanitarian disaster zone. And the rationale was considerably less lofty. As Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt reported in the New York TImes a year into the debacle, “the White House needed to placate the Saudis as the administration completed a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archenemy. That fact alone eclipsed concerns among many of the president’s advisers that the Saudi-led offensive would be long, bloody and indecisive.”

And the notion that the U.S. was somehow preventing the Saudis from targeting civilians was belied by the fact that the Saudis were openly and enthusiastically targeting civilians with U.S help. As Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy has put it, “there is a U.S. imprint on every civilian death inside Yemen.”

And yet, the 30 Obama officials were certainly on solid ground when they wrote that Trump, rather than learning from their failure, had doubled down.

We unsuccessfully tried conditional support to the coalition. This administration has demonstrated the folly of unconditional support. Now, we must cease support altogether.

So I guess that’s progress. (Incidentally, Trump explicitly justified his embrace of the Saudis by insisting that the Saudi-led war in Yemen is Iran’s fault.)

Perhaps the only other expression of serious regret from Obama officials that I’ve seen (and I’d be happy to stand corrected; email me)  dates back to March 2017, when Jon Finer, the chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, and Robert Malley, a senior adviser to Obama on the Middle East, glumly acknowledged in a New York Times op-ed that Obama’s terrorism rhetoric gave us Trump.

They gave Obama credit for rolling back some excesses of the George W. Bush’s administration. “But, cheered on by Republicans who backed him on little else,” Obama also “ramped up military strikes,” and made “the fight against the Islamic State the most visible initiative of his late second term.” Finer and Malley wrote that they “saw firsthand… the degree to which policy arguments couched in the language of counterterrorism carried inordinate weight.” And they warned:

This emphasis on terrorism has important effects beyond the Situation Room. It diverts limited time and resources from issues like China’s rise or Russian aggression. It can lead to overreliance on military action and false measures of success like body counts. It can stifle conversation, since decisions justified by threats to the homeland are insulated from criticism. And as the counterterrorism rationales from internal arguments find their way into speeches and official statements, it ratchets up public anxiety.

Their conclusion: that the “bipartisan approach to national security focused on terrorism” that Obama perpetuated “has distorted America’s understanding of its interests,” such that the public too easily falls prey to Trump’s message that “You are in danger, and I will do what it takes to protect you.” (They reprised this argument over the summer in Foreign Affairs.)

Meanwhile, over the weekend, Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan – two former senior national security officials in the Obama administration widely considered up-and-comers in Democratic foreign policy — wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “Democrats should challenge the president on his approach to the ‘forever war.’”

The two former officials – who cofounded the above-mentioned National Security Action group — write disparagingly that: “Despite running on a pledge to withdraw from military conflicts, Mr. Trump has escalated every conflict he inherited — largely behind a cloak of secrecy and without a clear strategy.” But they fail to acknowledge their own boss’s continuation of the “forever war” throughout the region.

They also urge Democrats to make the case “that a war against Iran cannot take place without congressional authorization.” But they fail to acknowledge Obama’s extraordinarily broad use of air strikes and combat forces in conflicts never even remotely foreseen by Congress’s 2001 authorization for military force.

And they argue that “expensive administration plans to modernize the nuclear arsenal and establish a ‘space force’ should be scrutinized.” While the space force is all Trump, they fail to acknowledge that it was Obama who authorized a $1 trillion nuclear arms “modernization” program.

So what else, if anything, do Obama foreign policy advisers regret? How sincere are they? And how wiling are they to change course when and if they return to power?

I’ll be asking those questions and looking for answers, and I’ll report back. So stay tuned.

Also see:

How to get an up-or-down vote on U.S. involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen

Trump justifies his embrace of Saudi leader by endorsing the bloody U.S.-supported war in Yemen

Congress gets a spine and nobody notices because it’s about Yemen

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How to get an up-or-down vote on U.S. involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen

Sanaa, August 2017, via Human Rights Watch.

There is a clear path to an up-or-down vote on ending U.S. complicity with the Saudi war in Yemen.

It starts with House Democrats, as soon as they are in power, passing a strong bill demanding an end to U.S. support to the Saudi-led coalition’s catastrophic bombing of Yemen – and invoking the War Powers Act.

That invocation will, in turn, force a floor vote in the Senate that Republican leader Mitch McConnell cannot legally block, no matter how much he wants to.

The critical element here is the process triggered by the invocation of the War Powers Act, Also known as the War Powers Resolution, it was passed in 1973 — over the veto of Richard Nixon — to check the president’s power to commit U.S. forces to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.

Not only does the War Powers Act reassert Congress’s role as the only branch of government Constitutionally permitted to declare war – it also establishes “congressional priority procedures” (in Sections 6 and 7) that prevent congressional leaders from blocking a floor vote.

Legislation pursuant to the Act – introduced by any member of Congress – automatically triggers a series of deadlines at the end of which the legislation becomes “the pending business” of the chamber, “and shall be voted on within three calendar days thereafter, unless such House shall otherwise determine by yeas and nays.”

Similarly, passage of legislation in one House automatically triggers a series of deadlines in the other, also ultimately leading to an up-or-down floor vote.

Practically speaking, that means that if the House passes legislation invoking the Act, it can’t get stuck in committee, or voted down in committee, and the Senate majority leader has no choice but to allow a vote. (Should the Senate choose to pass a different resolution about Yemen, there is also a series of deadlines for conference and a final vote.)

That has enormous value, Yale Law School Professor Bruce Ackerman wrote to me in an email. He suggested that “a majority of Senators would indeed support an appropriate resolution – which is precisely why the Trump Administration would vastly prefer it for Senator McConnell to keep the issue off the floor.”

And, he wrote, “At the very least… each Senator must stand up and be counted on the basic issue of whether Congress is to reclaim the war-making powers explicitly granted by the Founders.”

As it happens, California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna introduced a bill blocking U.S. support for hostilities in Yemen, invoking the War Powers Act – and just last week, the House leadership ignored the Act’s provisions and refused to let it come to the floor. In an entirely unprecedented move, House leaders stuck a line into an entirely unrelated bill – about the endangered status of wolves – simply declaring that the War Power Resolution “shall not apply to House Concurrent Resolution 138.”

Six Democrats and 195 Republicans voted to pass the bill-killer in wolf’s clothing, over the objections of 172 Democrats and 17 Republicans. Khanna cried foul: “In American history, never, never has the Speaker of the House and the majority denied a member of Congress a vote on matters of war and peace,” he said. “This is basically rendering ineffectual the War Powers Act.”

But Ackerman insists that Senate Republicans couldn’t get away with doing the same thing House Republicans did – because House Democrats now have the power to do something about it.

“The Democratic House should and will repudiate this precedent, and will have many tools at its disposal if the Senate does not live up to the law,” Ackerman argued. For instance, the House can “refuse to cooperate with the Senate leadership on key bills on their ‘wish list’ till they cooperate on this fundamental matter.”

An even partial assertion of the War Powers Act would be a sea change for Congress, which has repeatedly failed to exercise its constitutional war powers since essentially giving George W. Bush a blank check in the form of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which they allowed him and his successors to interpret liberally.

Ideally, it would actually be the beginning of a wider exploration of war issues.

“Once they take office, House Democrats can and should start holding hearings to find out more about how the President is using U.S. military force around the world without seeking support from Congress,” Oona Hathaway, a Yale Law School professor specializing in international law, wrote to me.

“For example, the U.S. strikes in Syria in April violated both the U.N. Charter and the U.S. Constitution—because they were never approved by Congress and were not taken in the self defense of the United States. The House Democrats can and should hold hearing to learn more about how the decisions to take these strikes were made.  And they should insist that the Trump Administration explain its interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force—particularly if it differs from that of previous administrations,” Hathaway continued.

“The next step should be to think about more comprehensive reform of the process for approving military operations, because the system is seriously broken.  There are no real prospects for serious reform in the next two years, but something more significant might be possible after 2020.”

The push to cut off support to the Saudi coalition is not new. Several members of both houses – following the lead of Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who’s been at it for three years – have been pursuing such legislation. Last November, the House overwhelmingly passed (336 to 30) a resolution simply stating the fact that Congress had not authorized U.S. military assistance in Yemen. The Senate got considerably closer in March, with a bill that called for a halt in American military support, getting 44 votes, including five from Republicans. If 10 Democrats hadn’t voted against, it would have passed.

The efforts have taken on extra urgency in the past several months.

A series of particularly tragic bombings by the Saudis – along with aggressive reporting by CNN, tying the bombs to U.S. defense manufacturers – called a rare bit of national attention to attacks such as one on a school bus in Yemen in early August that killed 40 children.

The New York Times in late October published haunting photos of emaciated Yemeni children, victims of a Saudi war effort that created a famine “of catastrophic proportions.”

But neither of those had nearly the effect in turning public sentiment against Saudi leaders and their Yemen war as the brutal, premeditated official assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, and the ensuing attempted cover-up.

And on Tuesday, Donald Trump inextricably linked the Saudi cover-up, his own complicity with it, and U.S. support for the war in Yemen. He did that in a jaw-dropping official statement that, among other things, justified his embrace of the Saudi leader by endorsing the U.S.-supported war and calling it Iran’s fault.

For those reasons, House action appears to be inevitable, with support from the top down. House leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her views in a statement after Republicans tanked the Khanna bill.

“The conflict in Yemen has gone on for far too long,” she said, “leaving a permanent stain on the conscience of the world.”

“One thing is clear,” Ackerman wrote to me. “These questions were not on the table when the Republicans controlled both Houses. Elections have consequences – if the Democrats in the House  show that they are serious, the definitive end to American participation in the Yemen tragedy is in sight.”

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Trump justifies his embrace of Saudi leader by endorsing the bloody U.S.-supported war in Yemen

After the most inane opening of any official White House statement ever – “America First! The world is a very dangerous place!” – the most urgent thing Donald Trump had to say today about his relationship with Saudi Arabia is that the horrific Saudi-led war in Yemen is Iran’s fault.

Never mind that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been definitively identified by the CIA as the man who ordered the grotesque premeditated ambush assassination of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

Instead, Trump gave a kindergarten-level intro to imaginary geopolitics in which the Saudis are the victims and the U.S. must stick by their side.

“The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen,” the statement indicated, adopting the Saudis’ specious excuse for continuing the U.S.-backed bombing of civilian targets that has already turned Yemen into a hellish landscape of carnage and famine.

Trump then adopted Saudi talking points that I suspect even the Saudis can no longer utter with straight faces.

“Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave,” Trump wrote. “They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.”

The reality is that the Saudi-led coalition has taken sides in what is a complex and confusing civil war in Yemen, where Iran is mostly a bogeyman. Neither Trump nor Obama before him have ever set forth an intelligible reason for the U.S. to be providing military support for the bombings, which it has been doing in the form of aerial refueling and help with intelligence and targeting. In the words of Sen. Chris Murphy, that support has put “an American imprint on every single civilian death inside Yemen”.

As far as I can tell, the first time Trump even addressed U.S. support for the war in Yemen was on Sunday, on Fox News.

Asked his view on ending U.S. involvement, Trump didn’t exactly say: “Well I want to see Yemen in but it takes two to tango. Iran has to end it also,” he said. “And Iran is a different country than it was when I took over, it’s far weakened because of what I did with the Iran — so-called Iran deal, Iran nuclear deal, which was one of the great rip-offs of all time. But I want Saudi to stop but I want Iran to stop also.”

I’ve been writing recently about Trump’s use of language. What’s striking about his written statement today was how similar it was to his unscripted ramblings. The official Saudi statement was vapid, credulous, combative and childish in the extreme — featuring eight exclamation points! All of its assertions conveying Saudi views were definitive; all those reflecting the views of the U.S. intelligence community were hedged and caveated.

It will almost inevitably backfire, and further links the effort to end support for the Saudi bombing in Yemen to the Kashoggi murder, strengthening that case considerably.

As I wrote two months ago, when a Democratic House was only a theoretical possibility, members of Congress from both parties had already joined together in significant numbers to balk at the U.S. military’s complicity in the Saudi bombings. Now, definitive action in the House is inevitable, and possibly in the Senate as well.

The biggest question may be what the legislation says, specifically. Opponents of the Yemen war were rallying around House Congressional Resolution 138, authored by California congressman Ro Khanna. But the ACLU on Tuesday issued a strong call to abandon it — on account of multiple legalistic loopholes — and instead take up more ironclad legislation in January.

National security expert William Hartung had an important article on CNN today. He noted that the Trump administration recently called for a ceasefire and announced its decision to stop refueling Saudi aircraft involved in the conflict. But Hartung doubted the effect of either move.

Only Congress can make it stop, he wrote. “The sooner that happens, the better it will be, for the people of Yemen and the security of the United States and the region.”

With Trump as commander in chief, concern about unlawful orders grows in the military

Marine looking through binoculars (Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alexander Sturdivant)

Members of the armed forces take an oath to obey the orders of the President of the United States and their commanding officers, as required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

There’s only one exception in that code:  If the order is unlawful. Service members are taught that if they are ordered to do something illegal or immoral – such as a war crime – they are obligated to refuse.

So soldiers typically ask themselves questions like: What would I have done if my commander ordered me to destroy an entire Vietnamese village?

With Donald Trump as their commander in chief, however, the question of what to do if given an unlawful order has become less hypothetical, says Pauline M. Shanks Kaurin, who teaches ethics at the U.S. Naval War College. (She spoke to me in an individual capacity).

“It’s not an academic question anymore,” she said. “For many people, it feels more present. It’s in the realm of possible in the military – much more than it has been.”

Nothing Trump has done – even sending troops to the southern border at Thanksgiving for political, rather than military reasons – has risen close to that level, she said.

“Let’s say you think it’s a political stunt,” she said. “That doesn’t rise to the level of disobeying a command because it’s illegal or immoral. The disobedience threshold is very high for the military – for good reason.”

(There are, of course, ways of resisting short of refusing an order.)

But if Trump were to follow through on his threat to order soldiers to use lethal force on civilians – a threat he quickly withdrew – who knows what might have happened?

“I will say that talking to my friends and students and colleagues in the military, people are thinking about this in more practical terms,” Shanks Kaurin said. “In other words, ‘If I get that order, what am I gong to do?'”

How scared should we all be about Donald Trump’s relationship with the military? That’s a question I’m posing to experts in the wake of my Nov. 19 post that listed several reasons for concern. Shanks Kaurin was the first. She wrote a fascinating article in Just Security last year about the growing civilian/military cultural divide.

She told me today that some service members see Trump as outside the normal spectrum of presidents. “They don’t see Trump as a normal commander in chief,” she said.

“But part of military professionalism is that you serve as an agent of the state and you serve whoever the civilian leaders are that represent that state,” she said.

That hasn’t changed dramatically – at least not yet – she said.

What has changed, however, is the willingness of retired service members, particularly flag and general officers, to criticize Trump’s conduct as commander in chief.

“I think for some people, they think Trump is in a different category – that think the normal rules about not being political or not being partisan don’t apply,” she said.

Case in point, the op-ed that Retired Adm. William H. McRaven wrote in August calling Trump a terrible disappointment. Trump fired back with some ridiculous potshots. Retired Gen. Mark Hertling then defended McRaven against Trump’s “jackassery.” Retired Gen. Wesley Clark just wrote that “Trump’s actions and behavior have led service members and veterans to question whether he really understands who a commander in chief is, or what he does.”

So, Shanks Kaurin said, “if you think that, does that change how you think the military should act?”

Shanks Kaurin said her concerns about Trump and the military have actually ebbed since he became president. “I think I was more worried during the election, when Trump was saying, ‘Of course, they’ll waterboard if I tell them to,’ and the military was saying “Oh no, we won’t.”

But she said, “The way he talks – ‘my military‘ — that’s odd relative to how other commander in chiefs talk about that.

“He struggles with what it means to be commander in chief.”

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