WASHINGTON – Suckers and losers, warmongers and pu—–.
President Donald Trump has reportedly used those labels to describe American war heroes and Pentagon brass. It’s enough to rankle even key Trump allies, including the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
And it shows just how fraught Trump’s relationship with the U.S. military has become.
“It’s a mix,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, the vice chair of the Armed Services Committee, said when asked about Trump’s standing with the Pentagon.
Thornberry himself took issue with Trump’s comment on Monday suggesting that Pentagon leaders “want to do nothing but fight wars” so they can keep defense contractors happy.
“It’s exactly the opposite,” the Texas Republican said, adding that commanders are often the most reluctant to send troops into battle because they’ve seen the consequences up close. “Their motivation is to serve the country, and I don’t see how that can be questioned.”
Trump’s public remark on Monday was sandwiched between two other explosive revelations: First, the Atlantic magazine reported that Trump repeatedly disparaged members of the military and described America’s war dead as “losers” and “suckers” – accusations the president has angrily denied.
Then, an explosive new book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward says Trump used even coarser language in private. “My f—— generals are a bunch of ——-,” Trump reportedly told White House trade adviser Peter Navarro at one point, according to Woodward.
The developments mark a dramatic shift from the early days of Trump’s presidency, when military leaders welcomed their new commander-in-chief with a sense of relief and optimism.
After a strained relationship with Barack Obama’s administration, they liked what they heard from Trump, who promised generous pay raises and hefty boosts in military spending. Trump had another advantage: He wasn’t Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival whom the military viewed with suspicion.
But the goodwill that greeted Trump when he entered the Oval Office has given way to tensions as he fights for a second term.
Trump’s relationship with the military has grown increasingly fraught over the past couple of years, as he made one decision after another that rankled military chiefs and rank-and-file soldiers alike. The Atlantic’s report last week that Trump repeatedly disparaged members of the military and described America’s war dead as “losers” and “suckers” was another serious blow.
“That’s a cut to the heart of everybody who serves,” said David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel and former spokesman for both the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.
Fresh tension erupted Monday when Trump accused senior military leaders of advocating “endless wars” to please defense contractors. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville quickly pushed back, saying he and his colleagues only recommend putting troops in harm’s way as a “last resort.”
The discord between Trump and military leaders isn’t a result of one breaking point, said Peter Feaver, an expert on civilian-military relations at Duke University.
Instead, “I would view it as more of an erosion and a death of 1,000 cuts,” he said.
Asked about the state of Trump’s relationship with the military, the White House said he has been a strong supporter of America’s veterans and troops.
“President Trump loves the brave men and women of our military and is honored to be their commander-in-chief. Period,” spokesman Judd Deere said. “He holds not only them but their families in the highest regard for their service and sacrifice. And he is awed by our soldiers’ bravery and courage to protect this country, our values and our flag.”
Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said there is always tensions between U.S. presidents and the Pentagon.
But “there’s no precedent for this” level of acrimony, said Smith, who has served in Congress through four different administrations.
Trump’s relationship with the military was always built on shaky ground, said Hal Brands, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in American defense policy. Officers who had attained the pinnacle of their profession through discipline, deliberation and dedication to constitutional principles often turned out to be a poor match for a commander-in-chief who acted on gut instinct.
“He doesn’t exactly model personal integrity or honesty,” said Brands, who said Trump showed contempt for the expertise of high-ranking military officers from the get-go.
While previous presidents have clashed with the Pentagon, Brand said, “it’s hard for me to think of another example where a sitting president while in office has openly disparaged the military leadership in such broad terms.”
Trump irked some military leaders right from the start when he rhapsodized over “my generals,” a group of officers, most retired, who filled key roles in his administration.
“That, right away, showed that he didn’t take the time to understand the military and didn’t want to understand it,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets, a nonprofit political organization that represents military members and advocates for progressive values.
Trump viewed the military “as his personal force, not the country’s,” Soltz said. “His use of the military flowed from that.”
Other controversial decisions – from Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw from Syria to denigrating European allies to his intervention on behalf of troops accused of war crimes – further eroded the military’s trust in their leader.
Trump’s pardons of Maj. Matthew Golsteyn and Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, and his reversal of a demotion for Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, have shaken the military criminal justice system and roiled the Pentagon’s senior leadership. Former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer lost his job after working out a private deal with the White House to let Gallagher retire without losing his rank and SEAL status. Defense Secretary Mark Esper asked for Spencer’s resignation, citing his “lack of candor.”
Trump’s treatment of US allies, including the Kurds, prompted Jim Mattis, his previous Defense Secretary, to resign. Mattis and others viewed the Syria withdrawal as a betrayal of Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS.
More recently, Trump has forced the Pentagon into an uncomfortable political spotlight.
Lafayette Square photo op a flashpoint
He tussled with Pentagon brass over the use of active-duty troops to quell racial justice protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in The Atlantic that he was “sickened” to see security personnel, including the National Guard, clear protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House to secure a path for Trump to hold a photo-op.
After the protesters were dispersed, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied Trump and other top administration officials on the walk from the White House to St. John’s Church – a decision Milley later called a “mistake” that left the impression the military was involved in politics.
A recent poll by the Military Times documented how much Trump’s support among the ranks has fallen. Almost half (49.9%) of the more than 1,000 troops surveyed held a negative view of him when asked in July and August, down from 42% last year. When he took office in 2017, 37% of respondents held a negative view.
The erosion of support for Trump “isn’t some quick reaction to recent news about his comments regarding troops and war dead,” Soltz said. “This has been brewing for a while. On big issues, like the role of the military, to smaller issues that impact troops and their loved ones, Donald Trump has shown absolutely no interest, outside of how they can help him, not vice versa.”
Thornberry said many Pentagon leaders are “incredibly grateful” that Trump supported major budget increases, which allowed them to repair vital equipment, among other things. And he gave commanders more authority to make on-the-ground decisions in the fight against ISIS, which Thornberry said hastened the terror group’s demise in Syria.
But Thornberry conceded that Trump’s insistence on sending National Guard troops to the border, the Lafayette Square incident and other controversies have caused concern inside the Pentagon.
Thornberry said he doesn’t know if Trump’s reported “losers” and “suckers” remark is true. But he was taken aback by Trump’s “impugning the motives of military leadership, which I don’t really understand.”
Feaver said Trump’s suggestion that military leaders are warmongers will further erode his standing with the brass and rank and file alike.
“Telling the rank and file, ‘You can’t trust your generals and admirals. They just want to go to war to sell more bombs,’ … that is one of the most pernicious calumnies that have been directed at the military over the centuries,” said Feaver, author of “Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations.”
But that comment was hardly the first time Trump has openly denigrated military leaders.
Trump recently undercut Esper by referring to him as “Yesper,” a dig at Esper’s willingness to accommodate him. And after Mattis resigned, Trump repeatedly attacked his former defense chief as an “overrated” general, among other epithets.
Trump has adamantly denied the account in the Atlantic, which centers on Trump’s decision in 2018 to cancel a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris to honor America’s war dead.
“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” the magazine quoted Trump as saying. The report, which cited unnamed sources, said the president referred to the more than 1,800 Marines who died at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.
The White House has pushed back hard on the report, insisting that the cemetery visit was canceled because heavy fog made it unsafe for Marine One to make the flight and releasing a list of two dozen officials who deny that Trump made the disparaging remarks. Trump himself also insisted he didn’t make the remarks.
“I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more,” Trump told reporters last week. He said those making the accusations were “low lifes” and “liars.”
Other news organizations, including the Associated Press and Fox News, said they had confirmed some of the allegations reported by The Atlantic.
AndTrump’s use of the term “loser” to describe fallen troops echoes a contentious Pentagon meeting he had with the top brass July 20, 2017, on foreign policy as reported in the book, “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America.” Trump grew enraged at being schooled by senior military and senior officials. He challenged them over the “loser war” in Afghanistan, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig write.
“You’re all losers,” Trump said. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”
A former senior Defense Department official who served in the Trump administration at that time was not surprised to read that Trump used similar language to describe the 1,800 fallen Marines atBelleau Wood in France. The former official, whose employer would not allow him to speak publicly, called the revelation revolting.
Lapan said the remarks attributed to Trump were “disgusting” but not surprising.
“It’s just another example of ways I think he has mistreated the military community, at the same time holding them up as props to be praised – as if a pay raise and an increased defense budget are all that people in the military are interested in,” he said.
Brands said the current friction is exacerbated by “the fear that the military will get pulled into particularly intense political disputes surrounding either domestic protests or the results of the 2020 president election.”
He said military leaders are extremely uncomfortable with that prospect, as evidenced by Milley’s comments after the Lafayette Square incident. He said DOD leaders are likely contemplating “scenarios that might materialize between now and January” and trying to figure out how to maintain the Pentagon’s reputation as an apolitical institution and an upholder of constitutional norms.
“The reason that the U.S. military ranks higher than virtually every other public institution when it comes to public trust is that it is perceived to be apolitical,” he said. “For that reputation to be lost would be frankly be catastrophic.”
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