By Fred Benson
Three weeks into the new administration, major polling organizations report that Trump’s approval rating has dropped dramatically. The national security advisor, retired Army General Michael Flynn, resigned in a firestorm for having lied to Vice President Pence about his pre-inauguration conversations with the Russian ambassador. Some National Security Council staff members have quit, and many of those remaining are reportedly using encrypted communications after hearing that top Trump advisors are considering monitoring cell phones and emails for leaks.
It is no wonder that Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, described the NSC as “very dysfunctional.” The term “embattled White House” seems appropriate.
Presidential transitions are always tricky, especially when there is a change of party. But in this case, the situation appears to be worsening. In normal times, most Americans would prefer that retired military officers not occupy cabinet-level national security leadership positions. This preference is not out of concern for their competence but, rather, to respect the embedded concept of civilian control of our government. These are not, however, normal times, and President Trump reached out to retired generals to occupy the highest civilian national security positions in the nation.
Flynn was a poor choice from the start. He was relieved as the Defense Intelligence Agency chief by President Obama for his “hard-line militancy and contentious management style.” Critics saw him as a brash troublemaker who seemed more interested in upending whole systems than repairing them. There also were repeated allegations that he republished debunked conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic materials. Given the strength of opposition facing him, it is reasonable to conclude that he would not have been confirmed by the Senate had he been subject to that review.
Trump has appointed retired Army Lt. General Keith Kellogg, the current NSC chief of staff, as acting national security advisor. Retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command who is well known to Defense Secretary Mattis, appears to be the front-runner for the job. Other names mentioned are Tom Bossart, the current homeland security advisor to Trump; Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security advisor; and – get ready for this – disgraced former CIA director and retired General David Petraeus.
That would be another huge mistake.
Fortunately for all of us, Trump’s selection of two highly respected Marine generals, James Mattis for defense secretary and John F. Kelly for homeland security secretary, received unusually strong bipartisan confirmation for their respective posts by the Senate. Having served together on many occasions, they remain strong colleagues. A Washington Post story reported that they each recommended the other for defense secretary when they met with Trump after the election.
The key active duty military leader is another very highly regarded professional officer, Marine General Joseph Dunford, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the second week of the new administration, however, Dunford was removed from the National Security Council (NSC) Principals Committee (PC) ostensibly by Trump. He remains a member of the full NSC but will attend PC meetings only “when his expertise is required.” His removal from top national security discussions is troublesome: as the senior military advisor to the president of United States, he has been given secondary status. At the same time, the political advisor to the president, Steve Bannon, became a full-fledged member of the PC. This change was authored by Bannon and Flynn allegedly without Trump’s knowledge. Many fear that sidelining Dunford in this manner will enable the politicization of national security policy under Bannon’s influence.
Further complicating this picture are deeply troubling signs that Trump seeks to politicize the military at protected venues where no protests could occur. At the CIA, the Pentagon and MacDill Air Force Base, Trump’s comments suggested that he sees the military as another promising political constituency, a vast departure from the norms of military service.
Each new day dawns with disturbing presidential executive orders, tweets and rambling diatribes against the media, clothing stores, “so-called” judges and anyone else who has displeased him. The national angst caused by this behavior continues to grow along with concern that our nation is being weakened, and our citizenry further divided, by a man who has not yet shown that he has the readiness and the temperament to fulfill his required duties as president.
For the moment, the national security direction of this country rests on the shoulders of retired Mattis, Kelly and Dunford, all of whom fortunately, are avowedly apolitical figures. Will they have the inclination and strength to temper Trump’s flamboyant utterances, or will they become unwitting pawns and venue masters for a continuing series of self-glorifying Trump-style rallies? What Trump said during the campaign remains disturbing: “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me. They don’t know much because they’re not winning.”
If he really believes that, why would he then listen to them?
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes “Capitol Commentary” an independent political newsletter. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel with two combat tours.