The Increasingly Dangerous Politicization of the U.S. Military
So many norms have fallen in the Trump administration crisis that this one falls through the cracks. To me that’s a big mistake. Tour concerns and willingness to object needs to proportion to the size of the problem. Few things loom larger than our traditional institutions. Few of those are core to our military, our democracy.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has further upended longstanding norms of military nonpartisanship. President-elect Donald Trump began to speak regularly about “my generals,” placing a personal stamp of ownership — and by implication, alliance with his party — on the senior officers he would command over the next four years. He staffed his administration with many retired generals and admirals, clearly rewarding some for their public support during the election. Flynn was named national security advisor, serving briefly before being overtaken by scandal. Retired Marine Gens. John Kelly and James Mattis were named to lead the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense respectively, and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster was tapped to be the national security advisor while still on active duty. At times, it was unclear whether Trump made any real distinction between the retired generals he appointed and those still serving the nation in uniform, seemingly seeing both as extensions of his administration.
The president has continued to shred longstanding norms of military nonpartisanship in many other ways. In his first trip to the Pentagon as commander-in-chief, he signed a controversial bill restricting immigration in the Hall of Heroes (which honors those who have received the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor) with Secretary of Defense Mattis at his elbow. Two weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, he described a convoy of Central American refugees moving northward as a national emergency and hurriedly deployed active-duty troops to the Mexican border — even though the caravan, composed mostly of harmless refugees, posed no serious threat to U.S. national security. After Congress later blocked funding for his border wall project, Trump decided to fund it by diverting what will probably total $2.5 billion from the military budget. And shortly before Memorial Day, he signaled his intent to pardon a number of U.S. military members accused of war crimes, some before their cases had even gone to trial. After an extraordinary outpouring of objections from retired senior military officers, Trump has apparently delayed any decision on what would be an unprecedented intervention into the military justice system.