Of all the roles of the presidency, commander in chief was perhaps the one that candidate Donald Trump most relished. His take-charge style, his hat and slogan, his command presence on the stage, his early experience at New York Military Academy and his boasting that “I know more about ISIS than the generals do” demonstrated his inclinations. And many Americans, including service members and veterans, believed that he would be a strong and effective commander in chief.
Yet as president, Trump’s actions and behavior have led service members and veterans to question whether he really understands who a commander in chief is, or what he does.
I served under eight presidents. I applied for West Point as President John F. Kennedy confronted the Soviets in Berlin, went to Vietnam under President Richard Nixon and came home on a stretcher, worked in the White House under President Gerald Ford, and eventually retired as NATO supreme allied commander under President Bill Clinton. I ran for the presidency myself out of deep concern as the ill-considered Iraq War unfolded under President George W. Bush. My heart is with the men and women in uniform, as well as our veterans. It is that affinity that brings me to these observations.
President Trump believes he honors and respects the military. He praises our men and women constantly. “I don’t think anybody’s been more with the military than I have, as a president,” he told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” He has appointed numerous generals to serve in his administration (“I have generals that are great generals”) and gained pay raises and hikes in defense spending. He fired the VA chief. He has a snappy salute and appreciates a good military parade, like the one he saw in France last year. He wants to be loved, respected and admired, no doubt.
But there is more to being commander in chief. He commands us, but he also represents us. The military is mission-oriented and values-based. The mission is protecting the United States, securing our freedoms, advancing our interests. The commander in chief sets the directions, makes the big decisions and inspires us to carry out the mission. And in his person and character, he represents the men and women who serve, as well as the veterans. He is actually our chief recruiter, too. We are loyal, regardless of which party is in power or who is in the Oval Office. We can’t be bought. We believe in selfless service, telling truth to power, choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. We honor noble sacrifice.
For Trump, trouble began on several of these fronts before he was even in office. He dismissed the service and sacrifice of Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and, by implication, all those who had suffered as prisoners of war. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said while campaigning in Iowa. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
He engaged in a back-and-forth with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Gold Star parents whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, died in combat. After Khizr Khan pointed out in an emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention that Trump had “sacrificed nothing, and no one,” Trump suggested that “Hillary’s script writers” were responsible for the speech and said that Khan had “viciously attacked” him. And there were the references to what “his” generals would do and be. “I see my generals, generals that are going to keep us so safe,” he said on Inauguration Day.
Didn’t he understand that good leaders are big-hearted, that they don’t bully and quarrel with those they outrank? And doesn’t he respect that generals are loyal to the Constitution and chain of command — you can’t “own” them?
In the first military operation of his tenure, which Trump personally authorized, Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens was killed. Trump seemed to slough off the blame onto his predecessor, and his own secretary of defense, retired Gen. Jim Mattis.
“Well, this was a mission that started before I got here,” the president said on “Fox & Friends,” referring to the Obama administration before turning on his own team: “They explained what they wanted to do, the generals,” he said. “My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades,” he added, “and they lost Ryan.”
Good leaders accept responsibility, especially when things go wrong. Commanders in chief do that.
He apparently didn’t know how to console the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, killed in an ambush in Niger, and ended up in a partisan spat with a congresswoman who had heard Trump tell Myeshia Johnson “something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’”
Commanders in chief don’t do that.
Posturing and electioneering were evident in the call for a parade in Washington, since canceled, and the rush to deploy active-duty forces to the border to stem “an invasion” from the south. We don’t want to be used that way.
The president hasn’t yet visited our men and women in a combat zone — not Afghanistan, Iraq or even along the DMZ in Korea. And recently, when he failed to visit the U.S. cemetery at Belleau Wood in France, where so many Americans gave their lives — it was raining, and a long drive from Paris — the criticisms exploded. Did he not understand that the troops and veterans want the president to see them where they work, to share in their hardships a little, and appreciate their sacrifices and risks?
“I’ve had an unbelievable busy schedule, and I will be doing it,” Trump said in the Fox interview on Sunday. I was in the ops center with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam, when President Nixon braved the rocket zone north of Saigon to see the troops. Yes, even Nixon.
But if Trump struggles with his role’s rites and rituals, there are deeper issues with his command. His blustering and combative diplomacy on Korea, cozying up with a potential adversary who has consistently worked to undermine the United States, and his pattern of insulting friends and disrupting allies are all deeply unsettling to the middle-grade and senior officers who plan and execute U.S. policy. They need steady, consistent, reliable leadership. The bobbing and weaving may work in a small family office, but he is now leading one of the largest, most structured organizations in the world — and certainly the most powerful. It needs a steady hand, not just at secretary of defense, but also at the very top.
What actually drives Trump’s policies and actions as commander in chief? On what basis does he make the decisions that could separate us from our families, and send us to war? By all reports he doesn’t like to read, doesn’t suffer long briefings, doesn’t want to study, doesn’t seem to want much of the experience of the generals closest to him.
We honor the chain of command, so we trust him with the most central issues of our time — war, peace, the nuclear button. But Russia is still bullying, North Korea is still polishing up its nuclear force, China is strengthening its position in the South China Sea, and Iran and the Islamic State are still there in the Middle East, while our oldest allies are cringing and disheartened.
In his campaign, Trump promised that only he knew how to lead America. In the field of national security the jury is still out.
Wesley Clark is a former NATO supreme allied commander. The retired general is a Centennial Fellow at Georgetown and a senior fellow at the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations.