Just three years ago, one memorable image from Donald Trump’s first full Cabinet meeting stands out in stark relief to explain why the eruption of criticism of the president today poses a grave threat to his presidency.
With television cameras rolling on June 12, 2017, Trump went around the table and solicited statements from the officials. With one exception, they all bestowed elaborate praise on Trump.
Vice President Mike Pence said it was “the greatest privilege of my life” to serve Trump. Nikki Haley, the new ambassador to the United Nations, chimed in, “We’re back,” as if the U.S. had just vanished in the past decade.
Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis, sitting next to Trump, simply said, “It is an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense, and we are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military as far as diplomatic, we always negotiate from a position of strength.”
In other words, there was one person with self-respect in the room.
It was a significant sign of times to come. With the exception of Mattis, all of these Cabinet members have remained sycophantic supporters of Donald Trump, quit under the shadow of ethics violations or departed because of policy differences.
Mattis remained in the revolving door of the Trump administration longer than most. Despite deep disagreements with Trump over major national security issues, Mattis stayed on until Trump made a series of impulsive decisions on U.S. troops in Syria and a unilateral suspension of U.S. military exercises with South Korea to please North Korea’s dictator.
And that is why Mattis’ withering critique of Trump’s reckless use of military force against peaceful protests in Washington signals a perilous moment in the presidency of Donald Trump.
Trump has no one to blame but himself. It was Trump who opted to exploit the nationwide protests and racial tensions after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis instead of seeking to unify the country — already tense due to the pandemic. It was Trump, and his attorney general, William Barr, who hoodwinked their current defense secretary, Mark Esper, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley into a march across Lafayette Square so Trump could hold a photo-op in front of a church. Milley has since said he should not have been there and hundreds of West Point graduates criticized the politicization of the military in a letter to the academy’s 2020 graduates.
That ugly scene, with American military forces and police battering their way through demonstrators, has fueled intense criticism of Trump.
Nearly 300 retired military and diplomatic officers signed a letter condemning the Trump administration for its heavy-handed response to the protests.
The most damning criticism came from the most respected military leaders.
Breaking a long silence, Mattis wrote, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Trump “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest, and risked politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.”
Colin Powell, a general and secretary of state in the Bush administration, called Trump a chronic liar whose reckless policies have done irreparable damage to America’s alliances and standing in the world.
Such stark criticism of a president by senior military leaders is highly unusual. But Trump, a recipient of questionable draft exemptions, has been very clumsy in his treatment of senior military leaders — and shown disrespect for a time-honored relationship between military leaders and their elected civilian leaders, even calling top generals “ dopes and babies.”
Despite claiming he knew “more than the generals” during the 2016 campaign, he appointed many generals and admirals to leading positions in the government. All have quit — in open disagreement with or contempt for the president’s whimsical decision-making.
Relations between presidents and their military leaders have often been difficult; note the Truman-MacArthur confrontation, differences during the Vietnam War, the failure to listen to military objections to the invasion of Iraq. But the scale and character of today’s collision between a president and his top commanders, highlighted by Trump’s misuse of the military and open disdain for its leaders, is a sharp break with the past and places the country on a dangerous path.
Frederic B. Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, foreign affairs director for Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr., and conducted wargaming exercises on national security issues for the Department of State.