Trump is 'setting a new precedent' with his Cabinet that could dramatically empower the military

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped at least three retired generals to fill his administration's top national-security positions.

He's considering two others, Gen. David Petraeus and Navy Adm. James Stavridis, for the role of secretary of state.

And in the running for other high-level national-security positions have been NSA director and US Navy Adm. Mike Rogers, as well as retired generals Jack Keane and Stanley McChrystal.

The appointments — retired Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary, retired Gen. John Kelly as homeland security secretary, and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser — and potential nominees have sparked fears of a potential imbalance between civilian and military relations in a Trump administration.

"When many of the norms and institutions are under attack, we need to be more, not less, careful about the role of the military in our society," Stephen Saideman, an expert on civil-military relations, wrote Thursday.

"Getting any complex agency to follow orders is hard," Seideman wrote, referring to the US military. "Especially one that largely lives apart from society, that tends to attract leadership from only a small portion of the country, that socializes so very powerfully, and that is seen as one of the few institutions that is highly esteemed these days."

Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions
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Trump's official picks for Cabinet and administration positions

Counselor to the President: Kellyanne Conway

REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Veterans Affairs Secretary: David Shulkin

(Photo credit DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Transportation secretary: Elaine Chao

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Energy secretary: Rick Perry

(Photo credit KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

 REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

Secretary of Defense: Retired Marine General James Mattis

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Chief of staff: Reince Priebus

(JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Chief strategist: Steve Bannon


Attorney General: Senator Jeff Sessions

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Director of the CIA: Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Deputy national security adviser: K.T. McFarland

(Photo by Michael Schwartz/Getty Images)

White House counsel: Donald McGahn

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Ambassador to the United Nations: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

(Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Education secretary: Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Commerce secretary: Wilbur Ross

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Homeland security secretary: General John Kelly

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Housing and urban development secretary: Ben Carson

(Photo credit NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Health and human services secretary: Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Department of Homeland Security: Retired General John Kelly

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Secretary of agriculture: Sonny Perdue

(BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump's decision to surround himself with military brass is not without precedent. President Barack Obama, for instance, appointed Petraeus and Gen. Jim Jones as CIA director and national security adviser, respectively. Adm. Dennis Blair and Gen. James Clapper served as successive directors of national intelligence under Obama.

But Trump appears to be "setting a new precedent" by appointing generals who, though retired, have not been out of service for long.

"It certainly is not unprecedented for a commander in chief ... to surround himself with military talent at multiple levels," Ed Lengel, the chief historian at the White House Historical Association, told ABC on Thursday. "But Donald Trump's appointment, particularly of officers who had retired so recently from military service, is quite unusual."

He added: "Trump is setting a new precedent by appointing such a large number of recently retired staff level Cabinet members."

Because Mattis only retired from the military three years ago, his appointment is in conflict with a US law that prohibits anyone who has been on active duty within the last seven years from serving as secretary of defense. Congress is expected to waive that requirement, however, for the first time since George Marshall was tapped to lead the Pentagon in 1950.

"Appointing too many generals would throw off the balance of a system that for good reason favors civilian leadership," The New York Times' Carol Giacomo wrote late last month, pointing to the Constitutional mandate that the president serves as the military's commander in chief.

"The concern is not so much that military leaders might drag the country into more wars," Giacomo wrote. "It is that the Pentagon, with its nearly $600 billion budget, already exercises vast sway in national security policymaking and dwarfs the State Department in resources."

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's Secretary General from 2005-2009, said during a conference call with reporters last month that the "one and only person being vetted [for defense secretary] that I consider a very experienced hand in foreign and security affairs is Stephen Hadley."

Hadley, who served as President George W. Bush's national security adviser and is now on the board of the US Institute of Peace, was ultimately passed over for Mattis.

What do the Cabinet positions do anyway?
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What do the Cabinet positions do anyway?

Vice President of the United States

Originally, the Vice President's main job was to preside over the Senate. But beginning in the 1970s, the Vice President's powers grew. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, is considered to have had a large role in shaping George W. Bush's foreign policy. Former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will take over the office from Joe Biden when Trump is inaugurated in January.

Pictured: Vice President-elect Mike Pence

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Secretary of State

The secretary of state serves as the President's main adviser on foreign policy issues, negotiates treaties and represents the U.S. at the United Nations. Trump has yet to say who will replace current Secretary of State John Kerry in his administration, but former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. Bob Corker and retired General and former CIA Director David Petraeus are reportedly under consideration, though the New York Times reported Sunday that Trump is still interviewing candidates, so that list may still grow.

Pictured: Current Secretary of State John Kerry

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Secretary of the Treasury

The secretary of the treasury is in charge of the administration's financial and economic policies. Trump named hedge fund manager and movie financier Steven Mnuchin as his replacement for current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Pictured: Trump's pick, Steven Mnuchin

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Secretary of Defense

The secretary of defense is the president's adviser on military and international security policy. James "Mad Dog" Mattis is Trump's pick to fill the role, which is currently occupied by Ash Carter.

Pictured: Trump's pick, James Mattis

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

United States Attorney General

Dubbed the "pople's lawyer," the attorney general helms the United States Department of Justice and advises the president on legal matters. The position is currently held by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Trump has picked Sen. Jeff Sessions to fill the role. 

Pictured: Trump's pick, Jeff Sessions

(Photo credit ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of the Interior

Known to some as the "department of everything else," the DOI "protects America's natural resources and heritage, honors our cultures and tribal communities and supplies the energy to power our future" and is currently headed by Secretary Sally Jewell. Trump has yet to name his pick, but the drilling advocates on his short list — which apparently includes former Vice-presidential candidate and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin — have environmental activists concerned. 

Pictured: Current Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell

(Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

Secretary of Agriculture

Thomas J. Vilsack currently heads the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees policies relating to food, agriculture and rural development. No word yet on who will fill that role in Trump's administration, but one of the names Trump has mentioned is Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner and Trump adviser who once called Hillary Clinton a "cunt" on Twitter.

Pictured: Current Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack

(Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Secretary of Commerce

As the department's mission statement puts it: "The Secretary of Commerce serves as the voice of U.S. business within the President's Cabinet." Businesswoman Penny Pritzker currently serves in the role, for which Trump has tapped billionaire investor and longtime Trump business associate Wilbur Ross Jr.

Pictured: Trump's pick, Wilbur Ross Jr.

(Photo by Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Secretary of Labor

Thomas E. Perez is the current United States Secretary of Labor and is tasked with overseeing the welfare of U.S. workers. Trump has yet to officially announce his choice, but reports indicate that he is considering Obama-critic Andrew Puzder, the CEO of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's parent company CKE Restaurants.

Pictured: Current Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez

(Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

Secretary of Health and Human Services

The Department of Health and Human Services oversees all health-related policy. Trump has tapped Rep. Tom Price, a staunch opponent of the Affordable Care Act, to replace current Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell.

Pictured: Trump's pick, Tom Price

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

Earlier this week, Trump announced the nomination of one of his former Republican presidential primary opponents, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, despite his lack of formal qualifications. In that role, he will take over for Julian Castro as the president's adviser on issues relating to housing and cities, including homelessness, sustainability and equal opportunity. 

Pictured: Trump's pick, Ben Carson

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Secretary of Transportation

The Department of Transportation secretary became an official Cabinet post in 1967. Trump has chosen former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to head the department — which is currently under the guidance of Secretary Anthony Foxx — in what some have described as one of Trump's more conventional picks.

Pictured: Trump's pick, Elaine Chao

(Photo credit EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of Energy

According to its mission statement, the Energy Department seeks to "ensure America's security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions." The current secretary of energy is Ernest Moniz; Sen. Joe Manchin, a conservative democrat, is reportedly under consideration for the role in Trump's administration.

Pictured: Current Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Secretary of Education

Trump's selection of Betsy DeVos, a republican donor and so-called "school choice" advocate, has been met with significant criticism. DeVos, who would be Trump's primary voice on educational policy, is considered the face of a struggling school system in her native Michigan. The department is currently run by Secretary John King. 

Pictured: Trump's pick, Betsy DeVos

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Trump has promised to "fix" the VA, which is currently run by Secretary Robert McDonald. But some veterans advocates worry that the incoming Trump administration will gut the department, which is tasked with providing assistance to military veterans. Reports that Sarah Palin and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry are under consideration for the role add to concerns that the new administration will privatize the VA.

Pictured: Current Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald

(Photo by Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

Secretary of Homeland Security

One of the central tenets of Trump's presidential campaign was immigration. His calls to build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, to conduct massive deportations of undocumented immigrants and to halt immigration from Muslim countries were among his signature tunes at campaign rallies. That potentially makes the head of the Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the wake of September 11th, one of the most significant roles in the Trump administration. The agency, which focuses on terrorism, national security and the enforcement of immigration laws, is currently headed by Secretary Jeh Johnson. Trump has yet to officially announce his secretary of homeland security pick, but Politico reported that top Trump aides have mentioned retired Marine General John Kelly as the top candidate. Far-right Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke is also reportedly under consideration

Pictured: Current Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson

(Photo via REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Cabinet-level positions

There are currently seven positions that are not considered to be an official part of the president's Cabinet, but that have Cabinet-level rankings. They are: the White House chief of staff, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the United States Trade representative, the United States mission to the United Nations, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and the head of the Small Business Administration. 

On Nov. 13, Trump named Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus chief of staff.

Pictured: Trump's chief of staff Reince Priebus

(Photo credit JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)


'The point is that he hates this s---'

Others think the fear that the military will be vastly empowered under Trump has been overblown.

With the exception of Michael Flynn, "I don't see them [the Generals] as a threat to the system," Jeff White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute, told Business Insider on Thursday. "There are a lot of upsides to the Cabinet generals, including strong organizational skills, disciplined thinking, problem-solving ability, issue knowledge, and goal-setting and pursuit."

Still, he noted, the generals "could emerge as a 'national security' block within the Cabinet" and may lack the bureaucratic and political sense and skills required to lead an institution like the Pentagon or Department of Homeland Security.

Mattis is one example of someone who, while qualified, could struggle to thrive in a convoluted bureaucracy like the Pentagon, War on the Rocks' Erin Simpson wrote last month.

"The point is not that Mattis is unqualified," Simpson wrote. "Rather, the point is that he hates this s---."

She continued:

"Budgets, white papers, and service rivalries, not to mention the interagency meetings and White House meddling — these tasks are not what you go to Jim Mattis for. Not only does the role of secretary of defense not play to Mattis' strengths, but success in that role would compromise much that we admire most in him: his bluntness, clarity, and single-minded focus on warfighting. The secretary's job is by necessity much more political than all that. You can't run the Pentagon like the First Marine Division."

Trump has alienated many of the nation's most senior national-security officials and veteran foreign-policy experts, however, leaving him with an apparent shortage of qualified Republicans willing to serve in his administration.

At least 100 GOP national-security leaders — most of whom served in previous Republican administrations and would be among the most highly qualified Republicans to advise Trump on foreign policy — effectively ruled themselves out after signing open letters in March and August saying he was "hateful," "dishonest," "dangerous," "erratic," and generally unfit for the presidency.

Trump has consistently brushed off criticism from establishment figures. He dismissed the August letter as the "failed Washington elite looking to hold onto their power," thanking them for "coming forward so everyone in the country knows who deserves the blame for making the world such a dangerous place."

Yet based on the options Trump is considering, he might not be done picking generals.

RELATED: Donald Trump named Time Person of the Year 2016

Politico reported Friday that Trump has asked friends and advisers in recent days "just how many generals would be too many" — and he has quickly become enamored with his pick to lead the Pentagon.

"'Mad Dog' plays no games, right?" he said at a Tuesday rally introducing Mattis. "General Mattis is the living embodiment of the Marine Corps motto...always faithful."

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