Amidst all of the confusion, the lies, and the damaged norms of the Trump administration, one of the best hopes for good governance has been tied to a handful of respected, trusted senior officials with military backgrounds. Indeed, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, and Defense Secretary James Mattis were ushered into Washington, D.C., with high hopes and broad bipartisan support.
However, Donald Trump and his administration have demonstrated an uncanny ability to blemish—if not fully destroy—otherwise stellar reputations. Sally Yates, Preet Bharara and James Comey—all fired by Trump—escaped his wrath with their integrity intact. Meanwhile, several prominent officials hired by Trump—“my people,” as he might say—have fallen victim to his unyielding desire to protect and promote his own reputation at any cost. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was the most recent victim. The White House used Rosenstein’s memo as a pretext for firing FBI Director James Comey, before Trump admitted that he would have fired Comey regardless of Rosenstein’s input and that he was thinking about “this Russia thing” when he made the decision.
But just as Rosenstein takes steps to rehabilitate his reputation and his independence by selecting former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel for the Russia investigation, it’s now McMaster’s turn to have his name stained in service of protecting his boss—a heart-wrenching experience to watch for any veteran even vaguely familiar with his illustrious career. And if Kelly and Mattis, both retired four-star Marine generals, are not careful, Trump might soon hijack and tarnish their reputations, too.
Not long ago, the public would have found it hard to believe that McMaster, an active-duty Army three-star general, would become embroiled in any of Trump’s political scandals. In fact, reports that Steve Bannon’s dark corner of the White House found McMaster so disagreeable that it wanted to oust him was an odd reassurance that McMaster was doing the right thing.
But then Trump’s intelligence disclosure fiasco with Russian officials was revealed, and Trump threw McMaster directly into the fray. According to the Wall Street Journal, “a senior White House official said they deployed Mr. McMaster to address the reports about the Russia meeting because the president felt he would be a more credible source on the matter than his communications team.” And in true Trump White House fashion, McMaster issued a confusing series of statements over two days, including a carefully worded denial on Monday that while true, evaded the central question of the Washington Post’s article. At a briefing on Tuesday, McMaster claimed the president’s disclosure was “wholly appropriate” and said Trump had not been informed of the source of the intelligence he shared with Russian officials.
Beyond the disbelief of McMaster’s involvement in Trump’s debacle, there are also broader repercussions. McMaster’s statements unfortunately might provide ammunition to Trump’s political base. In effect, these remarks—and his very participation in the affair—could allow Trump’s base to appropriate McMaster’s good name and reputation in order to label the Washington Post’s report as “fake news.”
McMaster is a talented thinker and leader, so he’s likely aware that his sterling reputation was employed this week as political cover in this episode. He also must know that he was deployed as a distraction from the Comey firing last week when he was brought out in front of the press to prematurely explain Trump’s forthcoming foreign trip. During that same briefing, he was also put in a position where he had to rationalize Trump’s “America First” campaign slogan, an inappropriate political role for an active-duty general.
One must start to wonder why McMaster has allowed himself to become the face of some of Trump’s scandals. Perhaps, as an Army officer on active duty, he feels especially compelled to follow the president’s orders. But when he was chosen to serve in the White House, America thought he would be the right person to defy Trump’s demands when they crossed a line. Only time will tell if McMaster is falling off a cliff or merely standing on its edge. He still has time to avoid a perilous fall and salvage his reputation, as Rosenstein possibly has.
Kelly might also be walking a fine line. On the one hand, his association with Trump’s politics should not be entirely unexpected. He was, after all, selected to run a department charged with implementing Trump’s inflammatory anti-immigration agenda. And Kelly should be commended for preventing Kris Kobach, a controversial figure who has since been given a leadership position on Trump’s questionable Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, from being appointed as his deputy.
But on the other hand, several warning signs have recently appeared. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke claimed he would accept a senior appointment at the Department of Homeland Security, a troubling prospect to say the least. That Kelly would either actively support or fail to thwart this choice is disappointing. And separately, when Trump spoke at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement on Wednesday and was presented with a ceremonial saber, Kelly told Trump: “Use that on the press, sir.” While this comment seems to have been made in jest, Trump is nonetheless the same president who habitually decries the press and has called it “the enemy of the American people.” Kelly should know to avoid reinforcing Trump’s dangerous views of the media. In addition, Trump might blurt out Kelly’s quote at future political rallies, and his supporters can now use it at will on the Internet.
So far, Mattis has survived the first few months of the Trump administration relatively unscathed. Yet he may find himself in a similar position because of an emerging pattern in Trump’s military-related decisions. Whether instinctively or deliberately, Trump is setting the conditions for passing the buck down to Mattis and senior defense leaders should anything go wrong during military operations. In the aftermath of the Yemen raid in January, Trump blamed generals for operational issues—but took the opportunity to bask in the media praise he received for recognizing the wife of the Navy SEAL killed during the raid in his speech before Congress. He also seems to be delegating rules of engagement decisions to military commanders. And a new plan Trump is considering “would authorize the Pentagon, not the White House, to set troop numbers in Afghanistan.”
If a major civilian casualty incident results from a U.S. airstrike or if conditions fail to improve in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, would anybody be surprised at this point if Trump ordered Mattis out to the cameras to jump on the grenade.
To be fair, some of these actions could be viewed as good-faith efforts by Trump to empower the military. And giving the Pentagon authority over strategic war-related decisions might seem like an attractive option in light of Trump’s lack of foreign policy experience and seemingly volatile temperament. But in reality, it is more likely that Trump is shirking his commander-in-chief responsibilities and trying to save face—while leaving room to claim credit for successes, of course. Despite the merits of removing Trump from military decisions, such an abdication of duty undermines any notion of meaningful White House-based civilian oversight of the military.
If tested, maybe Mattis will stand up to Trump, as he did on the torture issue. Mattis could even remind Trump of one of his campaign claims: “There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.” And if Mattis acquiesces, hopefully he will act with more savvy than McMaster displayed in his recent media adventure. Or perhaps we will never see this scenario play out. Given the unrelenting barrage of self-inflicted scandals, it is becoming increasingly difficult to believe Trump can last much longer in the Oval Office.