Former Pentagon officials blast Trump for politicizing the military

When National Guard troops helped police officers push back peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House, while active-duty Army units waited for orders on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work was remembering Vietnam War-era protests.

In particular, Work was thinking of May 1970 at Kent State University, when members of the Ohio National Guard fired on student protesters, killing four and wounding nine others. He prayed that history would not repeat itself.

“God forbid that we would have any instances where the National Guard would have to use lethal force and kill any American citizens,” the retired Marine colonel said in a recent interview. “That would be a rupture that in this fraught environment would be very, very difficult to come back from quickly.”

Work, whose tenure in the Pentagon’s No. 2 job straddled the administrations of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, knows what a crisis in civilian-military relations looks like. He was 17 in the summer of 1970, having just returned to the United States after five years in Spain, soon after the Kent State shooting.

Ohio National Guardsmen and students
Ohio National Guardsmen preparing to drive back Kent State University students during an antiwar demonstration, May 4, 1970. (Howard Ruffner/Getty Images)

To Work, the country to which he was returning “was nearly unrecognizable” from the one he’d left in 1965. Many Americans’ trust in the military, already under great strain after five years of war in Vietnam, had been shattered by the events in Ohio.

“I was in the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps [at the University of Illinois] and I could not walk down the street in my uniform without either people throwing stuff at me or threatening me,” he said. “The Kent State thing was really bad.”

It would take another generation for Americans to regain their faith in their armed services. Opinion polls routinely identify the military as one of the most trusted institutions in the United States. But the events of the past few weeks, as Trump urged an increasingly militarized response to the protests sweeping the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have threatened the public’s belief that the military will not involve itself in domestic politics.

The tensions that arose from the military’s role during the Floyd protests did not occur in a vacuum. Since the start of his tenure as president, Trump has repeatedly dragged the Pentagon into awkward political situations it would much rather avoid.

“Trump has constantly tried to use the military as a political prop,” said Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy under Obama, citing, among other examples, the president’s interference in the military justice system to pardon two convicted war criminals and his decision to prevent the Navy from punishing a third — Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

Trump’s habit of referring to the brass as “my generals” and to the troops they lead as “my military” has also irked former uniformed and civilian Pentagon leaders. “He speaks in a way that implies that somehow the military doesn’t belong to the nation, but belongs to him,” Leon Panetta, who has headed both the Pentagon and the CIA, told Yahoo News in an interview.

National Guard soldiers
National Guard soldiers line the street near the White House on June 3 as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The president’s instinct seems to be to push the military over a line from which it has done its best to stay well back in recent generations. “It begins to appear as if the president is using them for political purposes,” Panetta said. That in turn raises “questions about whether or not the military can maintain that necessary independence in order to focus on its primary job, which is to confront foreign adversaries but more importantly protect the national security,” he added.

Despite his experiences during the Vietnam era, Work, who served as Trump’s deputy secretary of defense in 2017, said that under this president “the use of the military for political purposes has become more apparent to me than any other time that I can think of.”

Trump appears ignorant of the apolitical traditions of the U.S. military, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, a former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. “The president has shown relatively little concern [regarding] what have been the traditional norms of keeping the military out of political events,” Barno said. “He is not entirely aware of what the norms have been and does not seem to be terribly concerned about maintaining those norms.”

As the protests for racial justice in the wake of the Floyd killing spread across the country, the events of June 1 in Washington, D.C., brought matters to a head. During a morning call with the nation’s governors, Trump said he was placing Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “in charge” and told the governors they should use their National Guard forces to “dominate” the protests. (The White House later said the president was referring to a command center in Washington that Milley, who is not in the chain of command, would help run.) In the same call, Defense Secretary Mark Esper advised the governors to “dominate the battle space,” meaning the neighborhoods where protests were occurring.

That afternoon, speaking in the Rose Garden, Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 in order to send the active-duty military to states where he deemed local authorities had not taken enough action to defend lives and property during the protests.

As the president was making his remarks, about 300 yards away National Guard forces were alongside Park Police and other law enforcement personnel using tear gas and rubber bullets to force peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Square.

Police officers push back demonstrators
Police officers push back demonstrators near St. John's Church on June 1. (Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images)

What followed was identified by several former senior defense officials as the most dangerous moment for civilian-military relations during the protests. Using the path cleared by the police violence, Trump and his entourage made the short walk across Lafayette Square so that the president could have his photograph taken brandishing a Bible in front of St. John’s Church, which had sustained minor damage in a fire the previous evening. Trailing Trump as he strode across the square — and captured in numerous press photographs — were Esper and Milley, the latter dressed in combat fatigues.

The image of the Pentagon’s senior civilian and uniformed leaders accompanying Trump to what amounted to a photo op in such circumstances was devastating to many observers. “That entire incident that occurred in Lafayette Square really shook up senior leaders in the military, and they said, wow, this was really, really problematic,” Work said.

The result was an unprecedented outpouring of public concern from former senior defense officials, both military and civilian.

The day after the Lafayette Square episode, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took to the pages of the Atlantic to express his disgust. “It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel — including members of the National Guard — forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church,” Mullen wrote. “I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump's leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.”

Donald Trump and Gen. Mark Milley, far right
President Trump, with an entourage including Gen. Mark Milley, in combat fatigues, departs the White House to visit outside St. John's Church. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

The next day, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary, who had declined to criticize Trump since his December 2018 resignation, finally broke his silence.

“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis said in a statement first published by the Atlantic. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.” (When asked for comment by Yahoo News, Mattis said he would prefer to let his statement speak for itself.)

On June 5, 89 former senior defense officials, including numerous Republicans, signed an open letter published in the Washington Post that decried the use of security forces, including National Guard troops, to facilitate the Lafayette Square photo op, which, the authors wrote, was “inappropriately” attended by Esper and Milley.

For many senior national security figures, the civilian-military relationship — and perhaps, therefore, the country — appeared to be teetering on the edge of an abyss. “There was a deep sense of concern that a line had been crossed by the president,” said Panetta. “One of the great fears in our democracy has always been the possibility that a president might misuse the military for his own political purposes.”

Ten days after his fateful walk across Lafayette Square, Milley confronted the mounting criticism with a straightforward apology for his actions that afternoon. “I should not have been there,” he said during a recorded keynote address to the National Defense University’s class of 2020. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. … It was a mistake that I’ve learned from.”

Milley’s public apology — combined with Esper’s comments during a June 3 press conference that he saw no need to use active-duty military forces to handle the protests and would not support invoking the Insurrection Act — may have been enough to pull the civilian-military relationship back from the brink, several former senior officials said.

Mark Esper, right
Defense Secretary Mark Esper visits National Guard officers guarding the White House amid nationwide unrest, June 1. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

“What happened to Mark Milley was a wake-up call for the senior military officers” because it showed them “how quickly and almost innocently” the line keeping them clear of actions that have a domestic political bearing can be crossed, said a former senior Navy officer, who added that Milley’s apology had left him “strangely less concerned” about the immediate threat to civilian-military relations. “I certainly don’t see Milley doing it again, and I don’t see other four-stars not learning that same lesson,” he said.

One of those four-stars, Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who commands all Air Force units in Europe and Africa, told reporters on June 18 that he was “proud” of the chairman’s comments. “General Milley provided his lessons learned, and that was done in a manner that I thought was really helpful in terms of laying out the challenges of being a senior leader,” Harrigian said.

While acknowledging that “there’s been a fair amount of discussion” among senior officers on the subject of civilian-military relations, Harrigian said he was not worried about the current state of those relations. Others aren’t so sure. The relationship is damaged, or at the very least remains under strain, but is not yet broken, they say. “The next four months are going to be fairly tense,” said Barno, speaking of the period leading up to the November elections.

Flournoy, who is often mentioned as a possible defense secretary in a future Democratic administration, is not shy about what she thinks is needed to right the ship. “The way it can be repaired is by having a new set of leaders,” she said. “If we had four more years of this, then you’d have damage that would be tough to repair.”

Panetta agreed. “It does need to be repaired,” he said. “I’m not as confident that with this president you can repair that relationship because of the nature of who he is and how he operates.”

Panetta, a member of the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993, said his Republican friends are also concerned that Trump may be setting a precedent. “Their fear is that a Republican may be doing it today,” he said, “but tomorrow a Democrat might also take advantage of that in order to use the military for political purposes.”


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