The Buck Stops Over There

The president loves splashy displays of military might. But when something goes wrong, he blames his generals.

Editor’s Note: This article is one of 50 in a series about Trump's first two years as president.

Donald Trump hadn’t yet served two full weeks in office when the U.S. military suffered the first combat fatality of his administration. William “Ryan” Owens, a 36-year-old father of three, had died in a Special Operations mission in Yemen that Trump personally approved. His reaction: Blame the generals.

The moment established Trump as a leader who would fall far short of the buck-stops-here burden-shouldering ideal of presidential tradition. Owens had been part of a SEAL Team 6 raid to gather intelligence, and possibly snatch a high-value terrorist target. It was an operation that, according to a reconstruction by NBC News, Trump green-lit after a dinner with advisers. But something went wrong, and the SEALs met a surprise counterattack, NBC reported. Not only Owens, but more than a dozen Yemeni civilians were killed, including children.

“They came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected,” the president said on Fox after Owens’s death. He emphasized that the idea for the mission had originated “before I got here,” with Barack Obama’s administration.

And then, with three words, the commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States publicly laid responsibility at the feet of his subordinates: “They lost Ryan.”

By that point, Trump had already established a pattern of disrespect for service. In 2015 he declared of Senator John McCain, a former Navy pilot who had been captured and tortured in Vietnam: “I like people who weren’t captured.” Then there was the incident in 2016 when he went after Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son had died in battle in Iraq, after Khizr criticized him at the Democratic National Convention.

All of that, however, was before he assumed ultimate responsibility for America’s military. Soon after taking office, with his deflections about Owens, he shirked it in an important respect. “He evidently doesn’t feel responsibility, even though he’s the one that signed off on it and initiated the action,” Owens’s father, Bill, said of the raid.

Two years into his presidency, much of which he has spent surrounded by generals in top national-security positions, Trump still hasn’t absorbed the ethos of service that the American military, in its most ideal form, can represent. This doesn’t just matter because decisions about war and peace are among the most consequential any leader can make. It matters because a willingness to subordinate self-interest is a basic requirement of any public service. And it bodes ill for the country if its highest-ranking public servant seems not to grasp what service really means.

America will remain at war for the foreseeable future. U.S. special operators are scattered in dozens of countries around the globe, and drone and other missile strikes are still targeting suspected militants in places like Yemen and Somalia. All the while, Trump—who, like many of his predecessors, never served in uniform—has portrayed himself as a champion of the military, vocally promoting enormous budgets for the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs. He appears captivated by displays of martial prowess, at one point controversially proposing a massive military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yet it took almost two years for Trump to so much as visit the troops in a war zone, a popular morale-building tactic of previous presidents. And he has offered many more opportunities to question whether he really gets the gravity of his position—from tangling with retired generals including William McRaven and Stanley McChrystal, to skipping Veterans Day at Arlington National Cemetery, to deploying troops to the southern border in a dubious mission to stop illegal immigration. Then there are the reports that the military bureaucracy has been caught entirely off guard by unexpected presidential pronouncements, such as the withdrawal from Syria.

Trump loves splashy expressions of might. He’s uninterested, however, in accepting accountability for the decisions he makes as the commander in chief. When something goes wrong, the buck stops elsewhere.