Trump and the Military

Mark Esper is the United States’ Secretary of Defense, at least for now. He’s openly stated his opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that would allow President Donald Trump to use the military to quell the recent unrest that has followed the death of George Floyd while being arrested, and although he quickly backed away from the statement he might not be defense secretary for long.
Trump has deployed National Guard units to patrol the streets of Washington, D.C, and urged governors to also use the National Guard, and he’d clearly love to unleash the active duty military on the streets. Ever eager to project an image of toughness, Trump hopes to “dominate the battle space,” even if it’s a peaceful protest in a public park that’s blocking his walk to a photo opportunity, and seems to care little that the military isn’t eager to take up arms against its fellow citizens.
Esper is a decorated combat veteran of the Army, and is steeped in the military’s proudly apolitical tradition. Trump’s first defense secretary, Gen. Jim Mattis, came from the same tradition and broke with his habit of not commenting on political matters to sharply criticize Trump with an essay that ran in The Atlantic magazine.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to defend the Constitution. 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 by,” Mattis wrote. “We must reject any notion of our cities as a ‘battle space’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’ Militarizing our response, as we witness in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict — a false conflict — between the military and civilian society.” He went on to criticize Trump for dividing rather than uniting the country.
Trump predictably responded by “tweet,” calling Mattis “the world’s most overrated general,” and despite his having appointed Mattis to be defense secretary adding “I didn’t like his ‘leadership’ style or much else about him, and many others agree.”
Although he talks tougher than any decorated combat veteran, Trump never served in the military, dodging the draft during the Vietnam War with educational deferments and a note for a podiatrist who rented his office from Trump’s father. He boasts about how he’s strengthened the military with increased defense spending, which is true even if he exaggerates how badly it fared until he came along, but he’s often clashed with the military leaders who don’t like being used as political props and disagree with his pardons of convicted war criminals. Trump doesn’t understand military culture, with its notions of honor and adherence to strict codes of conduct, and he doesn’t care about any Constitutional restrictions on its use.
That 1807 law does give Trump authority to quell an insurrection, but no previous president has invoked it, even in the turbulent 1960s, and Mattis and Esper are probably right that now is not the time to do so. Trump would be wise to listen, rather “tweet” more tough talk.

— Bud Norman

Hoping the Third Time’s a Charm at the Department of Defense

Army secretary Mark Esper has been named acting defense secretary, making him the third person to head the Department of Defense of during Trump’s two-and-a-half years in office. Here’s hoping he has better luck at the job than his predecessors.
Esper got the nod after acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew his nomination for the official post because of a domestic violence scandal. Unlike the three previous Trump administration appointees and the former Trump campaign official who resigned due to domestic violence scandals, in this case it was Shanahan’s now ex-wife who was arrested for battering him. That’s still something Shanahan didn’t want to have to explain at a confirmation hearing, and he was probably even less eager to answer questions about a son’s arrest for beating his mother with a baseball bat, and why Shanahan told the police and courts it was a case of self-defense.
Shanahan was preceded by Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general with a spotless reputation who breezed through his confirmation hearings and won bipartisan respect for his performance in the job, but he wound up resigning in less than a year, making it clear in his resignation letter that he disagreed with President Donald Trump on several important issues of national security. “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malignant actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” Mattis wrote. “Because you have to the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down.”
Esper’s confirmation hearing for his Army post didn’t turn up any scandals, so it’s unlikely the next round will dig up some dirt that the Trump administration’s notoriously lax vetting process overlooked. It’s also unlikely he’ll dare to differ with Trump with about anything, no matter how obviously wrong Trump might be.
The Democrats on the confirmation committee will probably have some questions to ask about Esper’s tenure as top lobbyist for Raytheon, the military’s second biggest contractor, but they would have had the same questions about Shanahan’s long career as high-ranking executive at Boeing, the military’s biggest contractor. The Democrats will probably have the same questions for any fourth nominee Trump might put forward, as he’s clearly comfortable with the military-industrial complex, and has jettisoned all the multi-starred generals and admirals he once bragged about for daring to disagree with him.
Esper’s outstanding resume includes the dean’s list as West Point, a master’s degree from Harvard’s school of government, and a doctorate in philosophy of all things from George Washington University. He served in the 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War, was chief of staff at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, and has held various government posts in the executive and legislative branches.
Despite such impeccable credentials, he was Trump’s third choice for Army secretary after the first two withdrew their nominations, in one case because the nominee didn’t want to divest his business holdings in defense-related business, in the other because of controversial comments about transgender bathrooms and Islam.
Esper will have to answer some tough questions from the Democrats about his handling of several sexual assault and harassment cases he handled as Army secretary, but the Republicans who hold a sight majority in the Senate probably won’t much care about that. We expect he’ll once again be easily confirmed, and will wind up doing as good a job as can be expected in an administration where the president and his national security advisor and Secretary of State are feuding about how to handle Iran’s recent aggression . He no doubt knows far more about defense issues than Trump does, as do Trump’s national security advisor and Secretary of State, ┬ábut Esper also seems shrewd enough to not let the boss know that.

— Bud Norman