Roundtable – Trump and the Generals
The Roundtable is Torchlight’s discussion of news and events. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links were added after the fact. This conversation happened on September 2, 2017.
Tom Rich, Editor-in-Chief
Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s discussion of news and events. One slow-burning items of news these last few weeks has been President Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military. The ban was announced on Twitter, and later signed by the President, but Secretary of Defense James Mattis has announced that he intends not to implement it until a full expert review is completed. This fits into a broad pattern of high-ranking military officers circumventing, ignoring, or contradicting statements by the Trump administration. Are these generals just doing their jobs and taking care of their business in a chaotic administration, or are the principles of civilian control of the military threatened by these actions? What, exactly, is going on with the Trump administration’s relationship with the military?
Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor
This is a story about competence and incompetence. Trump and his people are inexperienced at government and it shows every time they try to do anything. The only experienced, relatively apolitical figures Trump will allow in his administration are generals. I don’t want to get into the weird psychological reasons behind that, but it has definitely resulted in a scenario where the only people capable of curbing Trump’s worst impulses are military or ex-military… Even though this might be necessary for the safety of the country (and the world–hopefully Sec Def Mattis is there someday to stop Trump from nuking someone) it sets a really disturbing precedent. Essentially, by being so terrible and lazy a commander in chief, Trump has essentially abdicated civilian control of the military. Now we’re relying on military norms and personalities not to abuse this power. Gulp.
Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor
Well, first of all, I think that military not taking orders via twitter is an unquestionably good thing. There is a process for orders to go through, and decreeing things Michael-Scott-bankruptcy style isn’t that at all. So demanding that an order be an order is simply doing the job.
Second, for this particular order, it is incredibly unpopular at all levels of command, both within and without the Pentagon (and everybody in the pentagon saw what top brass was saying, and followed along even if they didn’t agree). No matter what their personal feelings might be on the matter (and I have no idea what they are), they prioritize the cohesion and effectiveness of the military first and foremost, and this doesn’t help with that at all. It’s discriminatory, it wastes a lot of money and resources, and has no real benefit.
Third, the order itself gave Mattis a huge amount of latitude. Trump was too craven and spineless to actually direct the Secretary of Defense to kick out trans people (which he is allowed to do, technically), especially after the widespread negative reaction, so backed away and then tried to make a situation that would be Mattis’ fault. Furthermore, this study on trans people in the military was already going on (presumably started by Obama to say “see! it doesn’t matter, shut the fuck up and let the patriots who want to serve this country serve!” or words to that effect). So Mattis is simply doing the smart play here, I think.
It’s worth mentioning that even as Mattis slow rolls rooting trans servicemembers out of the military, I believe Trump’s order does require them not to hire any more, and Mattis has no wiggle room there.
It’s worth noting a historic incident here, too. During the Korean War, President Truman fired General MacArthur over the general’s repeated, public disagreements with the President’s foreign policy. It didn’t take flagrant insubordination, just the appearance that the General was coloring outside the lines, so to speak. Mattis’s statements seem to be very carefully phrased so that it looks like he’s implementing the order, but implementing it cautiously. So even if civilian control isn’t necessarily being exercised, the top brass are at least making an effort to acknowledge it, which I think is a good thing. Appearances and symbolism do matter at this level. (edited)
David Schmitz, Junior Managing Editor
Trump might feel like he is God-King, but there are at least a few people in the administration that can see the inevitable repercussions of taking actions that are so universally disliked. I’m expecting that either Mattis gets pushed out eventually for not doing exactly as Trump requests or that Trump just ignores yet another misstep in policy and moves on to the next one, pretending this was all a major victory at his next rally.
I don’t know that Trump is ever going to push back against these people. Look at what he did with Afghanistan policy. All throughout the campaign, Trump ran on an argument that we should get out of that war (or switch to strip mining them for resources; Trump is weird). Then when he gets into office, he acknowledges that his military advisors convinced him otherwise. The result is that his policy ended up being “you do whatever you want, my generals.” Barring the kind of personal insults or spotlight-stealing that the brass are too smart to do, I don’t think Trump ever dumps them.
I think as long as people are praising Mattis, Trump will feel like they are praising him for making such a great pick. Remember, he doesn’t actually care about any policy position that I can tell, he just wants the adulation and praise. So if Mattis is making the good decisions, Trump is going to curve his speech so that it looks like it was all his idea. And I don’t think any of the military people particularly care about that because a) they know that the people who matter are paying attention, and b)they are at a level where credit like that is kind of irrelevant, because they have responsibility for basically everything that happens.
Also, what Josh said.
I tend to agree with you guys on that front. Where I’m more concerned is the erosion of norms around the relationship between the civilian government and the military. We already saw one pinprick when General Mattis was granted an exemption to the waiting period after active service normally required of a Secretary of Defense, and while I think tend to think that Mattis is the sort of guy you grant a waiver, doing it for him may make it easier to grant a waiver down the road to, say, a Michael Flynn sort of general. The same is true of the kind of stonewalling, slow-rolling, and soft opposition that Mattis has engaged in with the transgender service ban. I worry it sets a precedent down the road for clever and unscrupulous generals to duck civilian control, even if the President isn’t as clueless and hands-off as Trump.
My feelings on that are threefold: One, any port in a storm. Trump is an ongoing national crisis and if there are actually some adults in the room I’m mostly just glad they’re there to keep the car on the road. Metaphors!
Two, I actually don’t think this happens under a president who isn’t, as you say, clueless and hands off. Trump could very easily get around Mattis’ slow roll if he understood how to govern, he just doesn’t, and isn’t interested besides.
Three, we’re experiencing a breakdown in all our norms and institutions. Of the many precedents being broken or newly established, this is one of the least worrying, precisely because our military leadership is not yet really affected by the fundamental political shift here. We might get to the point where alt-right lunatics somehow become four-star generals en masse but we’re not there yet. In a sense this is like worrying about the water damage from the fire hose. You put out the fire first.
That’s basically how I see it. We have so much to worry about, and that specific thing is actually pretty easy to control. As Josh says, if Trump _cared_ about the policy, he could actually order it in a way that would happen. The Military has its own politics, and knows how to delay an order they don’t like, but at the end of the day, the Commander in Chief can close off any wiggle room. They just have to Command, and not just be a petulant twitterchild
And as an aside, it is absolutely imperative that sane people start winning elections again. All the voter suppression and gerrymandering can’t be an excuse for allowing our Republic to be taken over by Nazis. We’ve been allowing it every other election cycle and sometimes every cycle and it has caught up to us. We need to take advantage of the moment here where we have one last defense in the executive, even if it is military based, and the public opinion is tilted at its maximum away from Trump and his kin. 2018 is extremely important.
Agreed, and thankfully we have organizations working on those problems now. I do have some hope in that direction.
Glad to see you guys are hopeful about the situation. We’ve focused on Mattis so far, as he’s Secretary of Defense, but have we seen anything relevant out of National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster or White House Chief of Staff John Kelly? Both of them are or were generals, and both are in Trump’s inner circle. Does it seem like the same analysis that applies to Mattis applies here?
Well the story about John Kelly being basically fed up with Trump’s treatment just came out. But on the whole, it mostly seems to be “limit the damage POTUS can do, and then do what we think the job is.”
McMaster is in the same position as Mattis. Kelly is different, both in temperament (he seems to agree with Trump on, for example, immigration policy) and position. Rather than being an underling who has to work around Trump, Kelly is chief of staff, which essentially gives him a lot of power over this president. Kelly doesn’t seem like he’s interested in abusing that power against the country, but sure, it’s a problem that we have to keep saying “well they don’t SEEM like they’re interested in an actual coup.”
I feel like McMaster has been keeping himself distanced from any criticism, even more so than what the other generals have been doing. That might just be his style coming forth I suppose, but I’m always wary of unelected officials with access and power that I don’t hear much about.
Well, usually the National Security Advisor isn’t front and center in the news. The forward face of kinetic foreign policy is supposed to be the Secretary of Defense. ANd he already got burned defending Trump on that fucking Russia meeting, so he probably is trying to stay in the background from now on. And as I said, from reports, Kelly is getting fed up with the way the White House is run, because the problem is, at the core of all of this, the president.
And so we circle back to the ongoing problem, here: Trump isn’t temperamentally or intellectually qualified to be President, yet he is, and so the rest of the government has to lurch around covering for his failings and missteps instead of doing anything productive or useful. On that cheery note, final thoughts on the current and ongoing state of civilian control of the military?
As long as Trump doesn’t actually care, it makes us safer in this regard, because the logistics and strategy and so on are so complicated. The military simply cannot be commanded by superficial whining, so instead they have to enact their own processes and defense mechanisms. Now, a military running this way for an extended period of time can absolutely turn into a problem, but for now, it will just stymie Trump, but since the POTUS doesn’t care about policy, or politics, he doesn’t know enough to know how to react to it.
So, we were once worried that Trump was angling for that dictatorship with the false military accolades that are so popular among that type. Remember when he was so excited to get that Purple Heart? I think we’re less worried about that particular scenario now, but all our Spidey senses keep tingling because of the breakdown in norms that are happening anyways and as a result we see multiple generals in place at the highest levels of our government and just makes us uncomfortable. The President is supposed to be a final and powerful check from the public on the military but Trump has seen fit to not only bring the military in close to that power but to abdicate all decision making back to the military. It isn’t a terrible thing in itself since we don’t really want Trump to have that control but the problem lies in the future. We need to be sure to exercise the civilian control again and as soon as possible.
We’re all concerned about increasing military power here. But the military won’t want to take over unless they feel their goals are not being met. Even assuming there’s some kind of pro-war ideological bent there, the military is already getting what they want–a free hand in Afghanistan, fewer restrictions in the fight against ISIS, etc. Like Jeff Sessions, they’re already taking advantage of Trump’s absentee leadership to act according with their own desires, so why would they need to take more control away from him?
And so ends another Roundtable: thanks, as always, for a lively conversation!