Why Trump loves the US military – but it doesn't love him back

Julian Borger in Washington
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Donald Trump attempted to solidify his bond with the US army on Saturday, delivering the graduation speech to cadets at the United States Military Academy and boasting of a “colossal” $2tn rebuilding of American martial might.

Related: Top US military general Mark Milley apologizes for Trump church photo-op

Trump’s West Point speech was studiously vapid, with only a modicum of partisan boasting. But the political setting crackled with civil-military tension.

When all else fails – and that has happened a lot – the president has embraced the flag and hugged the military. But these days the military is not hugging back. It stands to attention as duty demands, but as inertly as Old Glory, the banner which Trump has taken to fondling at public events.

The president likes to refer to the soldiers around him as “my generals” and “my military”. The possessive pronoun always jarred with the spirit of civ-mil rectitude, even before it became evident how literally Trump interpreted it.

Saturday’s ceremony at West Point was the embodiment of the president’s approach. More than a thousand cadets from the class of 2020 were called back from their homes to the campus, 50 miles north of New York City, despite the coronavirus pandemic, so Trump could give a televised speech.

Fifteen cadets tested positive. The rest had to quarantine for two weeks. The whole show was widely disparaged as stage dressing for Trump’s re-election campaign, days after the president crossed a line in the exploitation of military leaders as props.

What we have here is an effort to use the military to partisan advantage

Risa Brooks

On 1 June, the president had the area around the White House cleared of peaceful demonstrators who were protesting police killings of black Americans. Tear gas and other chemical irritants were used as well as rubber bullets, baton charges and mounted police, all so Trump could walk across Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible in front of St John’s, the so-called “church of the presidents”.

In his entourage were the defense secretary, Mark Esper, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, the latter dressed in battle fatigues. In the presence of scores of soldiers from the national guard, it certainly looked like Trump’s suppression of peaceful protests was a military operation, in violation of norms that have underpinned US military conduct for a century and a half.

Trump planned to go much further, invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy an elite combat unit from the 82nd Airborne on the streets of the capital.

“What we have here is an effort to use the military to partisan advantage to the point of potentially putting troops in the streets to confront protesters [and] to present himself as the law and order president, which is a concept with pretty historical racial overtones,” said Risa Brooks, professor of political science at Marquette University.

As the full impact of the photo op debacle dawned, Esper and Milley slammed on the brakes. Esper reportedly came close to being fired, by opposing the use of the Insurrection Act and ordering the 82nd Airborne home. The former army officer and arms trade lobbyist pleaded cluelessness, saying he had no idea he was being roped into a photo-op at St John’s.

This week, in a video address to the National Defense University, Milley apologised for his presence, saying it had been a mistake. In an administration for which absolute personal loyalty is everything, the longevity in office of both men seemed to be in question. They are facing powerful countervailing winds.

A string of retired generals denounced Trump’s behaviour. James Mattis, the marine commander who was Trump’s first defense secretary, accused him of “abuse of executive authority” and making a “mockery of the constitution”.

Ahead of the West Point ceremony, hundreds of its graduates wrote to the class of 2020.

“We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to Duty, Honor, Country,” the open letter said, in a reference to Esper, class of 1986. “Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military.”

Donald Trump departs the White House on 1 June, with Mark Esper and Gen Mark Milley to his left.
Donald Trump departs the White House on 1 June, with Mark Esper and Gen Mark Milley to his left. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

Peter Bergen, director of international security at the New America think tank, and author of Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos, said: “I think this is the biggest split between the military and the civilian leadership. I can’t recall a time where there was more of a fissure.”

‘A very delicate position’

Such tremors under the pillars of the republic have been amplified by racial tensions, the restless fault line in US society and politics.

The US armed forces reflect the diversity of the nation far more than other institutions. Amid protests over the killing of George Floyd, black officers who posted emotional videos expressing the agonies of bearing witness to systemic racism were backed by the top brass.

The protest movement also gave new impetus to attempts to do away with symbols of the Confederacy. The navy and marine corps banned displays of the Confederate flag and the army has been taking steps to review whether 10 of its bases should be named after Confederate officers.

Senior military leaders want to talk about how important it is for the American military to be anti-racist.

Alice Hunt Friend

Alice Hunt Friend, a former senior Pentagon policy official now at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said: “Senior military leaders, both active and retired, are in a very delicate position because they want to maintain their nonpartisanship … but they also want to talk about how important it is for the American military to be anti-racist.”

The widening gap between racially sensitive armed services and a presidency that draws significant support from white nationalists became vividly apparent this week. On Monday, the Pentagon indicated that Esper was considering changes to bases named for Confederate generals. On Wednesday, Trump decreed by tweet: “My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”

“Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with,” he declared. “Respect our Military!”

Respect for the military is a powerful drug in US politics. It has retained the confidence of an overwhelming majority of an electorate largely contemptuous of other institutions. The endorsement of seasoned flag officers is enthusiastically sought at election time, though the actual electoral benefits appear to be marginal.

Trump surrounded himself with generals at the start of his tenure. They have all since fled and are now either critical or silent.

Related: Biden predicts military will intervene if Trump refuses to accept election loss

The president is their commander in chief, but their loyalty is to the constitution. They must obey every order Trump gives them, as long as it is legal. In admitting he had been led into crossing that line, Gen Milley signalled he was on guard to stop it happening again.

But that can be a hard judgement to make. What happens, say in October, if Trump is behind in the polls and wants to conjure up a military adventure abroad or a show of strength on US streets?

In October 2018, the army went along with an order to send hundreds of troops to the Mexican border, a couple of weeks before the midterm elections, a move that allowed the president to claim he was taking strong action on immigration.

“There is no way that the senior military leaders are not having a host of really difficult conversations among themselves about what the next six months or so will look like, about what they might be asked to do, and what would be appropriate to do,” said Mara Karlin, former assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, now director of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“I think it’s going to be a really bumpy few months.”