Trump Gives an Order Too Vague for His Generals to Obey

What happens when the president gives top military brass an order so poorly thought-out and explained that they can’t follow it?

General Joe Dunford, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and President Donald Trump
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

There’s an interesting minor furor going on over a statement that the wonderfully named Admiral Scott Swift made Thursday. Would he comply if President Trump ordered a nuclear strike on China?

“The answer would be yes,” Swift said.

It was clearly the right answer, if a scary one. Many people are nervous about the prospect of Donald Trump controlling nuclear weapons—Marco Rubio, for example—and everyone should be scared of a nuclear war with China, but the idea that the military follows orders from civilian leadership is appropriately sacrosanct. (The equally well-named Captain Charlie Brown, a good man, conceded dolefully that perhaps Swift should have questioned the premise of the question more aggressively.)

That is not the only interesting case study in civil-military affairs in the United States right now. On Wednesday, Trump abruptly announced a change of policy on Twitter, saying that the U.S. military “will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”

The announcement was confusing for its timing, substance, and rationale. Less than a month ago, Defense Secretary James Mattis had announced that he was delaying for six months an Obama administration ruling accepting transgender soldiers, saying the Pentagon needed more time for review. Trump’s announcement was not accompanied by a formal order, a fact sheet, or any of the other information that typically accompanies such a policy shift. The timing was mysterious. Administration officials told reporters, anonymously, that the shift would put Democrats on the defensive in purple states, but Politico reported that Trump had made the move in a horse-trade to obtain funding for his border wall, raising the possibility that the purple-state excuse was an ex post facto rationalization.

Whatever the impetus, the announcement left many questions. Trump cited costs in his announcement, but as my colleague James Hamblin writes, the medical expenses associated with transgender servicemembers are minimal. It was unclear, moreover, whether current transgender members of the service will be allowed to remain. Asked about that at Wednesday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders couldn’t provide any more detail about the policy, saying it didn’t exist.

“Look, I think sometimes you have to make decisions,” she said. “And once he made a decision, he didn't feel it was necessary to hold that decision. And they're going to work together with the Department of Defense to lawfully implement it.” In other words: We have no idea. And when reporters kept trying to ask, she threatened to end the briefing.

The Department of Defense had no answers either. In fact, the military, its civilian bosses, and its congressional overseers all seem to have been at the very least out of the loop—and in many cases, they actively oppose the decision. On the one hand, Trump did not seem to have simply made the policy choice while watching TV Wednesday morning—the way he sometimes tweets—and the language of the announcement was more formal than his standard Twitter patois; Vice President Pence, among others, had been advocating for such a move. But it also became clear that neither he nor any of his staff had bothered to do much homework, either.

Despite Trump’s statement that he’d made the decision “after consultation with my generals and military experts,” BuzzFeed reported:

At the Pentagon, the first of the three tweets raised fears that the president was getting ready to announce strikes on North Korea or some other military action. Many said they were left in suspense for nine minutes, the time between the first and second tweet. Only after the second tweet did military officials receive the news the president was announcing a personnel change on Twitter.

Mattis was consulted, according to The New York Times, but he was on vacation when the announcement was made and received only a day’s notice. He did not make any public statement about the change, and the Times reported he was unhappy about it.

CNN reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were not aware of the announcement until it occurred. Representative Mac Thornberry, chair of the House Armed Services Committee, called the decision “a complete surprise,” and declined to render an opinion on it because “I don't know what it means.” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain was also critical. “The president’s tweet this morning regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter,” he said in a statement.

One needn’t take the anonymously sourced reports out of the Pentagon at face value, though there’s no particular reason to doubt them. The absence of vocal support for the plan is evidence enough of commanders’ views. For Trump, who can’t resist a man in uniform, the lack of consultation before or support after is particularly glaring, though the retired generals in his cabinet have proven to be one of the few effective brakes on his behavior.

The problem is not just that the top brass don’t seem to support the plan—it’s how to carry it out. In the absence of any more detail, top commanders are simply doing nothing, while offering veiled criticism.

“There will be no modifications to the current policy until the president's direction has been received by the secretary of defense and the secretary has issued implementation guidance,” General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote in a memo. “In the meantime, we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.”

    Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley also threw up his hands. “We will work through the implementation guidance when we get it and then we'll move from there,” he said Thursday. Vice Admiral Robert Burke, the chief of naval personnel, said the branch “will not take any personnel actions or change any policy until further guidance from the president is received.”

    One can imagine the hesitations that generals might have. Though some officers have voiced concerned about allowing new transgender recruits into the services, many of them, including Dunford, have said there’s no problem allowing current members—of whom estimates range in the thousands—to remain in the military. Many officers likely share the concern, also felt by Mattis, according to the Times, that a sweeping policy of throwing current transgender servicemembers out is a bad idea that sends the wrong message to good soldiers, sailors, and airmen and -women. Another reason to move cautiously is that any move might very well be successfully challenged in court.

    But set aside those objections. All of these top leaders, like Admiral Swift, know that when the president gives an order, it’s their job to follow it. The problem is how they respect the chain of command when they don’t know what they’re supposed to do, or even whether it’s a formal order. The Pentagon, like the government, isn’t well-equipped to deal with a White House that is capricious, sloppy, and vague. At least the military has a useful acronym for this kind of situation.