Are Trump's Generals Mounting a Defense of Democratic Institutions?

Progressives were worried about the heavy concentration of retired brass in the new administration, but James Mattis and John Kelly could prove to be the most effective checks on the president.

Donald Trump shakes Defense Secretary James Mattis's hand after signing an executive order on immigration.
Donald Trump shakes Defense Secretary James Mattis's hand after signing an executive order on immigration. (Susan Walsh / AP)

Just a few weeks ago, progressives were aghast at the number of retired generals Donald Trump was naming to top positions in his administration, worried they were a sign of a nascent military dictatorship. Less than two weeks into his presidency, the generals seem to provide one of the few constraints on Trump’s moves.

After considering retired top brass for several openings, Trump ultimately hired three generals in top-level roles: Michael Flynn as national security adviser, John Kelly as secretary of homeland security, and James Mattis as secretary of defense. Trump’s administration has gotten off to a surprisingly effective start, remaking American policy on a range of issues with blitzkrieg efficiency. Democrats, a beleaguered minority, have little means to slow the White House down. With some notable exceptions, most Republicans in Congress are unwilling or unable to mount any serious opposition to Trump’s policies, both because they have other areas where they hope to work with Trump and also because the White House is reportedly drafting congressional staffers into service without their bosses’s knowledge.

That leaves few people in a better position to push back than Trump’s generals. They’re within the administration, and they were chosen in part to give the president some credibility: Their military experience made them respectable, and imparted competence that Trump needed to borrow. And while Trump’s critics worried that they would either lean toward an authoritarian model or else follow commands in the military manner, a series of reports suggests that they’re already frustrated with the president and feuding with his aides.

The immigration executive order, issued last week, has created the perfect conditions for a blow-up. The order sowed chaos around the country over the weekend, as the federal government struggled to implement a directive that had not been run past relevant agencies and offered a range of areas for disagreement. Trump signed the order on Friday at a ceremony for Mattis’s installation at the Pentagon, and the retired Marine general looked on as Trump put pen to paper. It’s Kelly at DHS who is charged with implementing much of the order. But it appears that neither man was fully briefed on the order ahead of time, nor did they have any input in the drafting, which was run out of the West Wing.

Kelly is frustrated about how the order was issued, The Wall Street Journal reports, saying that the secretary, a former Marine general, had been pressing the White House for language on the order for days, but only learned of the specifics while traveling to Washington on Friday. The New York Times reports that Kelly was finally getting a briefing as he traveled: “Halfway into the briefing, someone on the call looked up at a television in his office. ‘The president is signing the executive order that we’re discussing,’ the official said, stunned.”

Kelly was not the only person left out of the loop, the Associated Press reports:

At least three top national security officials—Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Rex Tillerson, who is awaiting confirmation to lead the State Department—have told associates they were not aware of details of the directive until around the time Trump signed it. Leading intelligence officials were also left largely in the dark, according to U.S. officials.

According to the AP, neither Mattis nor General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff knew about the details. Tillerson, who if confirmed will become the nation’s top foreign-affairs official “has told the president's political advisers that he was baffled” that he was shut out, the AP said. Mattis was previously critical of the idea of a Muslim ban.

Trump defended the tight control of information in a tweet Monday:

One is left to wonder whether the president believes that his Cabinet secretaries are among the “bad ‘dudes.’” Yet the pace of leaks does suggest that if Trump had informed departments of the order ahead of time, the language would have made it to the public, and perhaps forced the White House to delay or soften the order.

The immigration order is only the latest matter to cause friction between Trump and the ex-brass, much of it following the same template—frustration over lack of communication and a sense that the White House demands its way over the objections of department staffers.

The Journal also reports that Kelly was upset at the White House for pushing Kris Kobach for the role of his deputy. Kobach, who is the Kansas secretary of state, is an outspoken immigration hawk and proponent of strict voter laws as a response to discredited allegations of massive voter fraud. Kobach was reportedly the West Wing’s choice to be Kelly’s deputy, but Kelly refused, desiring a candidate with more homeland-security experience. Elaine Duke, a longtime DHS administrator, is reportedly in line for the job.

Mattis has also reportedly clashed with the White House over appointments. The Trump team nominated businessman Vincent Viola to be secretary of the Army without first consulting the defense secretary-designate, who had not yet been confirmed at the time. CNN and The Washington Post both reported on conflicts, though the Trump transition denied any friction. While Trump has repeatedly suggested he would bring back the use of torture, Mattis has insisted that such tactics are immoral and counterproductive.

Other reports suggest that Trump is also displeased with Flynn, though for different reasons. Flynn is by most accounts a brilliant intelligence officer with some managerial weaknesses, and he was a leading Trump supporter during the campaign. The Times reports:

But Mr. Flynn, a lifelong Democrat sacked as head of the Pentagon’s intelligence arm after clashing with Obama administration officials in 2014, has gotten on the nerves of Mr. Trump and other administration officials because of his sometimes overbearing demeanor, and has further diminished his internal standing by presiding over a chaotic and opaque N.S.C. transition process that prioritized the hiring of military officials over civilian experts recommended to him by his own team.

Flynn was reported to be a player in the split between Mattis and the White House.

When Mattis and Kelly were nominated to head departments—Flynn, as national security adviser, did not require Senate confirmation—some progressives worried that the generals would either be too willing to acquiesce to Trump’s wishes, unlike career civilian officials, or that the heavy presence of brass would undermine the cherished civilian control that is a hallmark of the United States government. Mattis required a waiver to run the Pentagon because he had not been out of uniform for the decade typically required before a former officer can serve in a top civilian role, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, refused to vote for the waiver.

But there’s another possibility, which is that the generals could serve to constrain Trump. Unlike the president, who has suggested a lack of specific knowledge about the Constitution in the past, military officers are well-versed in the law and their own obligations—a knowledge that manifested itself in Mattis’s comments arguing against torture. They also care deeply about following rules and procedures, and for instilling a sense of order. The last week has shown that Trump’s advisers, by contrast, and in particular Stephen Bannon, are perfectly content with chaos, and perhaps even welcome it.

It’s certainly not unheard of for generals, usually active-duty ones, to play the role of a check on elected leaders, in various forms. In Turkey, the military has tended to view itself as the guardian of secular norms, and has repeatedly stepped in to topple civilian governments that generals feel have strayed from national principles. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly clashed with the nation’s military leaders, who reportedly stayed him from launching an assault against Iran’s nuclear program. In May 2016, Netanyahu scolded Major General Yair Golan for comments critical about Israeli policy.

Some commentators have raised the idea that serving military officers would refuse to execute orders from Trump if they believed they were unconstitutional or violated international treaties. But the idea of military officials acting as a check on elected officials is disconcerting. Even if one thinks Trump is acting lawlessly, a de facto coup is also lawless. There’s no good option.

Mattis and Kelly, however, are now civilian officials. So far, their objections have been private, though waged partly in public via press leaks. The test of whether they will prove to be an effective counterweight to Trump’s overreaches and disregard for protocol will come if he continues to push decisions down on them. Trump cleverly employed retired brass to grant himself credibility, which means that the generals now have some power to revoke that credibility. Would they willing to publicly break with the president? If so, would Trump be willing to fire them?