S1: Because of the pandemic, graduation at West Point was always going to be bizarre this year. It’s been bizarre everywhere. Some schools have staged drive through 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.
S2: The heads of the army begged the president, look, don’t do this. Slate’s Fred Kaplan watched the whole thing over the weekend. The other academies they had virtual ceremonies were fine on doing that. He insisted on it. He’d never spoken at West Point before. Clearly, Lorna. You wanted a great photo op.
S1: So the West Point band played from behind plexiglass and nearly a thousand newly minted officers sat on chairs, positioned six feet apart.
S2: Yeah, they walked in with masks and then they took them all against and on with respect to the president doesn’t like he wanted originally. He wanted them to be in tight formation.
S3: The question was, what would the president say to these graduates after weeks of protest over George Floyds death? After suggesting the U.S. military should restore order around the country, and especially after federal agents used pepper spray against protesters who were in front of the White House. Were you expecting the president to say something to address what’s been happening in the country over the last couple of weeks or. I thought he might have made some oblique reference, which he did not such a contrast to General Mark Milley, who gave a commencement address of his own for the National Defense University. He apologized.
S4: He said I should not have been there.
S3: Mark Milley is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’d come to regret one moment in particular, walking with the president through Lafayette Square after federal officers used force to clear it of protesters. When Milley gave his graduation speech, he called that act a mistake.
S5: This 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 instance when any general officer has apologized for. Doing something where he’s standing next to the president.
S4: It’s a huge, huge thing, as is this whole string of events that’s gone on in the last week involving officers retired and in some cases active duty, criticizing with various degrees of directness or bleakness. The president and his policies.
S6: Today on the show, is the military turning on President Trump? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S3: It was back on June 1st that those protesters got cleared out in front of the White House. The operation involved several forces working side by side. The Secret Service, the park police, the National Guard. But the president had wanted to involve even more troops. In fact, while protesters were being driven from Lafayette Square, several hundred members of the eighty second airborne were stationed on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., just waiting on Trump to give the signal.
S5: Yeah, these are not people holding rifles with bayonets. The idea is that this is heavy duty stuff.
S3: There’s been some reporting about what led up to June 1st. 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?
S5: Well, there have been many instances where the National Guard has been called into cities for one reason or another. On the one hand, I mean, hurricanes and snow storms, things like that. On the other hand, you know, the Rodney King riots dash, actually active duty forces were called in to the streets for that. And the governor of California’s request, the riots in in Detroit and Washington, D.C. in 1967 and 68. Eighty second airborne was called into the streets. So it’s not like this has never happened before. But, you know, Trump was allegedly talking to his advisers about he wanted to flood the threatened to flood Washington, D.C. with 10000 troops. You know, we don’t have 10000 troops in all of Afghanistan now. Keep 10000 troops. There might not have been 10000 protesters.
S3: How much latitude does the president have to send troops?
S5: Well, there is this thing called the Insurrection Act. And it’s been amended and revised several times over the decades. And court decisions on anything related to national security and the use of armed forces has has confirmed giving the president wide latitude in interpreting this in any way he wants.
S3: The Insurrection Act gives the president the power to deploy federal troops within the United States in the case of a violent uprising against the government. President Trump’s near invocation of that policy. It upset many military officials, active duty, retired. And this rift shocks, Fred, because speaking out against the president is not what military officers do.
S5: On the one hand, nothing that Trump has done that that people have protested with and spoken out against is is really an unlawful order. On the other hand, there are principled military officers who looked at this situation and said this is no insurrection. What’s going on here? We should not be involved in this. And, you know, when you’re a military officer, you wouldn’t think that it really is driven home, just pounded into your brain from the moment you put on your uniform, as you know, that the primacy of civilian authority and following orders, following lawful orders and you obey the civilian authority. But there is also a tradition also pounded into your head. You know, you’re taking an allegiance to the Constitution, not to any particular person. And what Trump has set himself up with is, is a tension between those two things.
S3: I mean, you’ve covered the military for years and years. Had you heard from military people ahead of time, like so far?
S5: I called around. No, there there’s. Listen, there’s there’s great discomfort among a lot of military people, retired and active duty. As I said, there’s this tension sometimes between following civilian and obeying lawful orders and entering ultimately with the Constitution. They’ve never really had to face the potential tension between those two things. I mean, the first person who spoke out, it was Admiral Mike Mullen, retired admiral, former commander of Joint Chiefs of Staff, not a rowdy kind of officer at all. I mean, really not not the kind of guy who put himself out there, really. Well, it is modern is more of a company man of the ultimate company man who rises to the top. 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 it was that that finally got Jim Mattis, who’s been remaining silent for a year now, for an effective defense. Right. You wrote this blistering letter of resignation, resignation in protest and then said, nope, I’m not saying anything more. I might someday, but not now. And you said, OK, this is this Sunday. And he, you know, skewered not just what went not just Trump’s reaction to the protests, but Trump’s personally saying that, you know, we’ve had three years of immature leadership. I mean, you know, this is wild. He’s a retired four star Marine general. We’ve never seen this kind of. Rebote might be too strong a word, but let’s say strong descension.
S3: I want to focus this a little bit on the people who are currently in the administration, who have been speaking out and their roles and how we got here. I’m thinking particularly of General Mark Milley and the defense secretary, Mark Esper, and these two guys were flanking the president on June 1st. Can you tell me a little bit about who these two men are?
S5: Well, I mean, general, merely highly decorated general. He had been chief of staff of the army before. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commanded troops in battle. A decent guy who I am told subsequently that from almost the moment that he was posing for that. Photo op regretted what he was doing. As for Esper, who were a lot of people nicknamed Secretary Yes, Burr, because his photo YES-MAN is job is he saw his job was to do what the president wanted him to do and not to raise a fuss.
S3: I think the thing that has endured about June 1st is really all of the imagery where you see the protesters, sometimes journalists, you know, being pushed back roughly. And then you you see, well, what is it for? And it’s the president just standing in front of a church with a Bible. And then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was in uniform in battle dress by the president’s side. And then he stuck around and was there after dark in Washington, D.C., walking the streets, you know, like he was looking for the next day’s battleground. When you saw those images, what did you think?
S5: I remember thinking, boy, I’ve heard good things about this guy. This doesn’t look like it looked like, you know, used to. He was trying to look like Patton, you know, surveying, surveying the terrain for next for next stage tank sensors. It was it was so disproportionate to what to what the true situation was. I was kind of shocked, really.
S3: It it was pretty impressive how within a week you had just a torrent of people coming out and pushing back on the imagery.
S5: It didn’t even take a week. The people who actually run that church spoke out immediately. Some evangelicals and then Espers called a press conference and said he does not agree defense that the Insurrection Act should be applied to what was going on in the streets in Washington, D.C. The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.
S3: We are not in one of those situations now.
S5: He said that he was looking. Telling the active duty troops that had been called to the Washington area to go back to their bases, which he later withdrew, he backpedaled on that one did so they never actually went into the city. So anyway, he was called to the White House. And I’m told, given a real chewing out, many halted the order going back to the bases. But but he used to sort of realized this is there are there are costs to my reputation and to what I’m supposed to be doing here to to give a complete, unblinking obedience to the guy who is running things right now.
S3: I’m wondering if there’s a charitable interpretation of what Mark Esper and General Milley did that night on June 1st. Is there a way to see it as choosing the least evil? You know, we have some National Guard troops there, but we won’t send in the eighty second airborne. And so it’ll be a less aggressive stance and, you know, sort of moderate the tone.
S5: I think that’s right. Look, I think these guys realized very quickly that they they’re 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.
S3: Right. Because this instinct to assuage I feel like it’s been the modus operandi for the for the military for the last couple of years. Just, you know, try to try to keep things level.
S5: You know, that’s what they’re supposed to do. And, you know. But then there’s another thing and that is that a lot of people and this has happened a lot. They say, OK, guys, this is just a nightmare. But, you know, it’s a good thing I’m here because if I weren’t here, things would be so much worse. So I’ve got to stick around. I’ve got to eat the crap that is shovel’s my way sometimes to keep him happy. And I’ll do what I can behind the scenes. You know, after this administration is over. We are going to see so many interviews and books and articles by so many people saying, oh my God, he was such a monster, such a maniac. Oh, you wouldn’t believe the stuff that I saved the country from time and time again by being there. We’re going to see. This is going to be a popular genre of political literature.
S3: So it sounds like to you the difference now is not just the volume of people speaking out, though that’s important, but it’s 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 president’s doing. That’s a brand new thing. And it really it sets us up for something interesting, which is all of these people will meet again. And it’s hard to imagine what that meeting will look like where you have two people who have clearly staked out very different sides of this argument.
S5: Yeah, I think Mary must have done what he did, knowing that he could be fired for it. Same thing with the secretary of defense. I think Trump gets a second term. I think they will definitely be out of there. You know, he sees firing everybody else who’s had even been reported to be at odds with him.
S3: I guess I found myself wondering. What will happen next time? Because in this circumstance, you had people in a meeting speaking out saying we don’t think this is a good idea, kind of settling on this National Guard situation and regretting things afterwards. So to me, the true test is the next time you’re in that meeting ahead of time, what do you say? Are you going to resign over sending the National Guard in because you realize that was a mess last time?
S5: Well, they are thinking about it now. And one thing Trump knows that they’re thinking about it now. I’m not sure there is going to be a next time. Again, you know, the military people who had to deal with this. The officers who. And trained in these things for a long time, they 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 they’ve come down on. They know where they stand on it. Maybe, maybe Trump realizes that they know where they stand on it and he doesn’t want to push them any further. But I think it took them a while to get some of these officers, a while to achieve clarity on this. They now have that clarity. And I think if there is a next time for something like this, I think there will be a much stronger and even earlier pushback.
S3: Yeah, yeah. And so many of these folks have been fired. Like, not necessarily military, but you inspectors general, you know, people have testify. It just makes you wonder they’re fired for doing their job. Yeah. There seems to be a little bit of a line of people who are willing to fill in for a few months to just keep things going. That’s I guess that’s my concern when I look at it, where it would be if people being fired or people resigning, you know. When does it matter? I guess.
S5: Well, I mean, it did. They’re not always stepping in. I mean, the ranks of the Foreign Service, for example, or. I forget the exact percentage, but I mean, you know, something like a third of foreign service officers have either quit or been fired and you don’t you don’t rebuild that. It takes it takes a long time to rebuild something like that. The applications for to take the foreign service exam are way down. If I were somebody, a young man thinking about going into the army and looking at what’s been going on, I might I might decide otherwise. The these things do have a corrosive impact of a president who takes advantage of the powers. He has to do a lot of institutional and ethical and moral destruction and can have a huge corrosive impact on politics, society and culture.
S4: It’s it’s it’s going to take a long time to come out of this.
S7: Fred Kaplan, thank you so much for joining me. Sure. Pleasure. Fred Kaplan is Slate’s War Stories correspondent. He’s also the author of the book The Bomb. Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War. And that’s the show. What Next? Is piece by Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Jason de Leon. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll be back here tomorrow.