A Troublesome Precedent? Civil-Military Relations under the Trump Administration

von Sarah Wagner, M.A.

A Problematic Premise

When President Trump began surrounding himself at the beginning and in the course of his presidency with leaders who possessed a military background, parts of the American public and pundits seemed to be relieved at the prospect of having ‘adults in the room’ that might be successful in tempering the brasher instincts of the Commander in Chief. Yet under closer inspection, this was already a problematic premise for many reasons. Not only did it contain the troubling assertion that civilians might not be able to provide leadership in this scenario, it also put the military in an awkward position: Being called on to contain its own Commander in Chief. Traces of this can still be seen today, for example with calls on former Secretary of State General Mattis to speak out about the policy decisions on Ukraine by the Trump administration. Representatives of the military were asked to contain a president as well as potentially act as a whistleblower, a precarious position for military leaders to find themselves in. With the departure of these military professionals from the administration (James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly) Trump himself has not alleviated this pressure on the military, instead he has intensified it and tested the boundaries of healthy civil-military relations. Two developments are of particular interest in this context, the undercutting of military leadership through the president as well as the increasing politicization of the military during his time in office.

Undercutting Military Leadership

By recently pardoning service members that were accused of war crimes as well as reversing the demotion of a Navy SEAL, Donald Trump inserted himself directly into questions of military leadership and the maintenance of order within the ranks. As Commander in Chief this is undoubtedly his right, yet in these specific cases it appeared to be motivated by a partisan appeal to his base and resulted in the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, and bruised civil-military relations. By going “against what appears to have been the near-unanimous counsel of the relevant chain of command—the senior civilian leadership within the Defense Department and the senior military leadership” he dismissed not only their expertise, but also undermined trust in them as well as their authority. In addition, it sent a troublesome message to nations that host large numbers of U.S. forces by implying that wrongdoing on foreign soil might be without consequences for active duty members.

The motives behind the pardons appear to be a service to his base voters, ignited by intensive Fox News coverage. Instead of following the advice of his senior leadership, Trump was heavily influenced by Fox & Friends co-host Pete Hegseth, who turned the case of Navy Seal Edward Gallagher into a partisan spectacle that caught the attention of the president. The public and private lobbying by Hegseth as well as members of Congress swayed the president’s opinion and thus undercut what military leaders had been trying to implement in the ranks of the Navy SEALS: order and discipline. As retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling describes the resulting challenges for the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, Read Admiral Green: “With President Trump intervening in both the legal case by reversing the demotion of Chief Gallagher and the administrative procedure of determining who continues to serve in the elite SEAL organization, Rear Admiral Green will have to address how others in his organization that might now believe they would be immune from the published standards and the command guidance that Green has put in place (there have been more than 150 other SEALs who have had their Trident pulled due to misconduct or disciplinary infractions since 2011).” 

Politicization of the Military

Yet what can be regarded as the most problematic development regarding civil-military relations under President Trump is the increasing politicization of the military in the United States. According to Alice Hunt Friend, a “politicized military exercises loyalty to a single political party and/or consistently advocates for and defends partisan political positions and fortunes. An apolitical, nonpartisan military is one of the norms underpinning American democracy and a feature of American military professionalism.” Being seen by the American public and elected officials as nonpartisan is not only a crucial democratic norm, it is also important for the military itself. Only with a military seen as nonpartisan can representatives trust military advice and the military can trust that its resources and missions are not endangered by political partisanship. Speaking of trust, in a time where Americans trust institutions less and less, the U.S. military is still one of the most trusted institutions and thus a rare glimpse of bipartisanship in a very polarized country. Yet by drawing the military leadership and its members into partisan battles and divisions, there is a danger for polarization to publicly break through into the realm of the military and potentially leading to a coalition between representatives of the military and partisan politicians. Examples of President Trump politicizing the military and treating them as a specific constituency and not as a professional institution are manifold.   

At the beginning of his presidency, Trump signed the controversial executive order regarding the “Muslim Ban” at the Pentagon, his commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy in 2017 had many elements of a campaign speech and when speaking at the commissioning of the USS Gerald R. Ford in the summer of 2017, he called on the troops to “wade into the political fray and help lobby Congress on health care and other topics”. Such open calls to engage in specific partisan battles are especially problematic since the military has many rules and regulations in place that aim to regulate the political activities of its members and draw a clear line between private and official political engagement. By treating the military as his own loyal base and constituency and doing so in a very public manner, Trump risks further politicizing one of the last institutions that is trusted by both political camps in the United States. Visiting military installations and speaking to troops should not resemble a campaign rally and create the impression that the military uniformly voted for Donald Trump and is thus a partisan institution.

At the same time, some military leaders feel compelled to speak out on specific issues that would be harmful for the armed services yet where the president seems to abdicate leadership. One such example includes the events of Charlottesville, where the president waited too long only to issue a half-hearted statement and which caused five of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to publicly condemn racism and extremism. Retired former commander of the United States Special Operations Command, William H. McRaven, even wrote an op-ed in the New York Times where he stated that “if this president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs, both domestically and abroad, then it is time for a new person in the Oval Office — Republican, Democrat or independent — the sooner, the better. The fate of our Republic depends upon it.”  While Democrats might support such statements, the question begs whether they would also cheer on an outspoken military under a Democratic president. 

Future Challenges

Civil-military relations are rarely filled without tension or conflict. Yet they still merit our attention, especially keeping in mind larger debates about the quality of democratic norms and measures of control. Under Donald Trump, tensions regarding the undercutting of military leadership and the politicization of the armed forces have increased and it is worth watching how the relationship develops further in case of a reelection of the president. In a broader context, the question will be if and how polarization might affect the military in the future. Will confirmation hearings for military leaders become more confrontational and partisan? Will more retired military members voice their opinion and will even more of them engage in the process of endorsing candidates in the 2020 election? And will the wish of opponents of President Trump for more outspoken military leaders still be the same once a different party is in power? It is important to remember that the precedents set during the time of the Trump administration might turn out to be even more challenging and complex in the future.