In his efforts to mask the seriousness of his actions around Russia and Ukraine, President Donald Trump has taken aim at one essential democratic institution after another—questioning the legitimacy of the press, the intelligence community, the courts, and, most recently, the House of Representatives itself. But he has so far mostly held his fire against both “his generals” and “our boys” in America’s military. “I will always stick up for our great fighters,” Trump promised his political supporters in Florida at a recent rally, championing on that day his recent decisions to pardon soldiers accused of war crimes.
The military, for its part, has had more mixed feelings. As a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, described one such pardon, the president’s action was nothing less than an “abdication of moral responsibility.” Indeed, the military’s generally steadying reactions to the president’s worst moments of volatility have given members of Congress on both sides of the aisle reason to hope that the Pentagon at least will remain a check on presidential impulse that might really compromise national security, should other checking institutions fail.
But hoping that a president will defer to the judgment of the professional military is a sign that something has gone very wrong in America’s constitutional infrastructure. The American republic was, after all, founded on the complaint that the king had “affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.” The Constitution’s Framers abhorred the British army, as much or more for its treatment of colonists in the years leading up to the war as during it. As Alexander Hamilton put it with characteristic clarity in “Federalist No. 26”: “The people of America may be said to have derived an hereditary impression of danger to liberty from standing armies in time of peace.”