How Trump Lost the Military

Esper and Milley stand at podiums at the Pentagon.
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley at the Pentagon in March. Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

Because of the pandemic, graduation at West Point was always going to be bizarre this year. Graduation has been bizarre everywhere. Some schools have staged drive-thru graduations. Others have gone online. But West Point was the only university that forced its graduates to return to campus, quarantine themselves for two weeks, and then sit for a ceremony that none of their friends or family could attend, all in order to watch a half-hour speech from the president. “The heads of the Army had begged the president, Look, don’t do this,” says Slate’s Fred Kaplan. It wasn’t the first time in recent weeks that leaders of the military spoke out against President Donald Trump. Kaplan, who writes Slate’s War Stories column, joined me on Monday’s episode of What Next to discuss when the military turned on the president and how he lost their support. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has come to regret one moment in particular—walking with the president through Lafayette Square on June 1 after federal officers used force to clear protesters. He’s apologized for that moment.

Fred Kaplan: He said, I should not have been there. This is a bigger deal than a lot of people who don’t follow this sort of thing might realize. I can’t think of a single other instance when any general officer has apologized for doing something where he’s standing next to the president. It’s a huge, huge thing. As is this whole string of events that’s gone on in the past week involving officers, retired and in some cases active-duty, criticizing with various degrees of directness or obliqueness the president and his policies.

Theres been some reporting about what led up to June 1 and the conversations that went on, because the idea of having the National Guard there was a kind of a compromise is my understanding. Is that your understanding, too?

Trump was allegedly telling his advisers that he wanted to flood Washington with 10,000 troops. We don’t have 10,000 troops in all of Afghanistan now. There might not have been 10,000 protesters.

How much latitude does the president have to send troops in?

There is this thing called the Insurrection Act, and it’s been amended and revised several times over the decades, giving the president wide latitude. On the one hand, nothing that Trump has done that people have spoken out against is really an unlawful order. On the other hand, there are principled military officers who looked at the situation and said, This is no insurrection. We should not be involved in this.

When you’re a military officer, one thing that is just pounded into your brain from the moment you put on your uniform is the primacy of civilian authority. But there is also a tradition, also pounded into your head, that you’re taking an allegiance to the Constitution, not to any particular person. And what Trump has set himself up with is a tension between those two things.

Youve covered the military for years and years. What have you heard from military people?

There’s great discomfort among a lot of military people. They’ve never really had to face the potential tension between obeying lawful orders and answering to the Constitution.

The first person who spoke out was Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who is really not the kind of guy who would put himself out there. Mullen is more of a company man. For him to write an article in the Atlantic saying, I can no longer keep my silence, is just a remarkable thing. And I think that finally got Jim Mattis, who’s been silent for a year now after writing a blistering letter of resignation, to finally speak up. He skewered not just Trump’s reaction to the protests but Trump personally, saying that we’ve had three years of immature leadership. This is wild. He’s a retired four-star Marine general. We’ve never seen this kind of … revolt might be too strong a word, but let’s say strong dissension.

I think the thing that has endured about June 1 is all of the imagery where you see the protesters, sometimes journalists, being pushed back roughly. And then you see, well, what is it for? And its the president just standing in front of a church with a Bible. It was pretty impressive how within a week you had just a torrent of people coming out and pushing back on the imagery.

It didn’t even take a week. The people who actually run that church spoke out immediately. And then Defense Secretary Mark Esper called a press conference and said he does not agree that the Insurrection Act should be applied to what was going on in the streets of Washington. He sort of realized there are costs to his reputation and to what he’s supposed to be doing here to giving complete, unblinking obedience to the guy who is running things right now.

Im wondering if theres a charitable interpretation of what Esper and Milley did that night on June 1. Is there a way to see it as sort of the choosing the least evil?

I think that’s right. I think these guys realized very quickly that their playing along with the total loyalty game had now gotten them into trouble. But what’s remarkable is that they spoke out publicly about it. Nobody had done that without getting fired first.

This instinct to assuage has been the modus operandi for the military for the past couple of years. Just try to keep things level.

A lot of people say, OK, guys, this is just a nightmare. But, you know, its a good thing Im here because if I werent here, things would be so much worse. So Ive got to stick around. Ive got to eat the crap he shovels my way sometimes to keep him happy. And Ill do what I can behind the scenes.

It sounds like to you the difference now is not just the volume of people speaking out, though thats important, but its the fact that we have these people in positions of power who go into meetings with the president having press conferences and giving speeches where they reject what the presidents doing. 

That’s a brand-new thing. I think Milley must have done what he did knowing that he could be fired for it. Same thing with the secretary of defense. I think if Trump gets a second term, they will definitely be out of there. You know, he’s been firing everybody else who’s even been reported to be at odds with him.

I guess I found myself wondering: What will happen next time? Are they going to resign over sending the National Guard in because they realize that was a mess last time?

They are thinking about it now, and Trump knows that they’re thinking about it now. I’m not sure if there is going to be a next time.

These officers were there long before these tensions between obeying lawful orders from the commander in chief vs. following constitutional principles. And you have a commander in chief who doesn’t care about those principles. I think now a lot of officers have thought that one through and know where they stand on it. Maybe Trump realizes that they know where they stand on it. And he doesn’t want to push them any further. I think if there is a next time for something like this, there will be much stronger and even earlier pushback.

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