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How Trump fell out of love with his generals, and why the feeling is mutual

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By Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali and Steve Holland

U.S. President Donald Trump picked retired generals for some of his most senior national security posts when he took office and boasts of heavy spending on the U.S. military that he asserts is unmatched in history.

He has made getting U.S. allies to increase their own military spending a cornerstone of foreign policy along with a commitment to walk away from “ridiculous endless wars” in the Middle East that have killed thousands of U.S. troops.

But the Republican president has also ridiculed his top generals, ignoring their advice on some key issues and questioning their intelligence, courage and commitment to their soldiers.

Critics say Trump has used the military as a prop and purposefully undermined Pentagon efforts to remain apolitical.

A businessman and former reality TV star, Trump in 2016 won the presidency, his first public office, while challenging the establishment, including even fellow Republicans. He often, even publicly, rejects advice, most recently that of his health experts on the coronavirus, without losing much ground among his supporters. It remains to be seen whether this dismissive approach, including with his generals, leads to victory in his November election bid for a second four-year term.

This month Trump, who never served in the military, had to battle a report in The Atlantic that on a 2018 visit to France he referred to American soldiers killed during World War One as “losers” and “suckers.”

A review of Trump’s speeches and tweets throughout his presidency and interviews with aides and military officials show a contradictory and steadily deteriorating relationship, with Trump sometimes gushing with praise for his generals and other times portraying them as incompetent.

Trump likes to say he pays more attention to the rank-and-file.

“I learn more sometimes from soldiers, what’s going on, than I do from generals. I do. I hate to say it. I tell the generals all the time,” Trump told a convention of conservatives in 2019.

When he was accused of disparaging service members this month, Trump returned to the same theme and denied any wrongdoing.

"I'm not saying the military's in love with me. The soldiers are," he told reporters. "The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy."

Some current and former military officials say that Trump started out with extravagant praise for his generals but grew irritated when their advice ran against his wishes, frustrated by the wars he inherited and uncomfortable with an apolitical military leadership he sometimes sees as disloyal.

They complain he flouts norms of behavior in his open pursuit of political support among U.S. troops, who are meant to be loyal to the U.S. Constitution - not any party or political movement.

"Our civil-military norms can only take so much pressure for so much time," one military official said, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity. "You're already seeing cracks. You're already seeing politicization of the uniform."

A former defense official who served under Trump and spoke on condition of anonymity said the problem boils down to Trump's views on loyalty. "He views it as: ‘Are they on my side or not? Are they with me or against me?’"

Despite painting himself as a defender of the country's warriors, Trump has seen his support among military personnel fall, according to opinion polls by Military Times.

At the start of his presidency, 46% had a favorable view and 37% were unfavorable. The most recent survey in July and August showed those numbers flipping to 38% and 50%, respectively.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Trump has demonstrated his commitment to the U.S. military and holds U.S. troops and their families in the highest regard.

"And he is awed by our soldiers’ bravery and courage to protect this country, our values, and our flag," Deere said.

CHURCH WALK

Military chiefs briefly stumbled into America's political divide in June, when senior Pentagon officials accompanied Trump as he walked to a church near the White House to lift a Bible for a photo. This was shortly after law enforcement officers backed by National Guard troops used tear-inducing chemicals and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters.

Adam DeMarco, a major in the National Guard, took the rare step of appearing at a congressional hearing to voice concern over the crackdown.

"The events I witnessed at Lafayette Square on the evening of June 1 were deeply disturbing to me and to fellow National Guardsmen," DeMarco said.

Trump's threat to militarize the response to U.S. protests prompted some retired four-star generals to issue statements condemning it. The military is meant to protect Americans' right to peaceful protest, they said.

Retired Marine general James Mattis, who was Trump’s defense secretary for the first two years of his presidency, was withering in his response.

"Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try," he wrote. "Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort."

U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later acknowledged accompanying Trump that day had been a mistake, having created a "perception of the military involved in domestic politics."

MATTIS, FROM ADMIRATION TO INSULTS

Before taking office, Trump met with Mattis at Bedminster in December 2016 and brought him before the media, taking great delight in the general’s “Mad Dog" nickname, and pronounced him right out of central casting.

But he soured on the general and others for not bending to his will on a range of issues, at home and abroad. Mattis disagreed with Trump's berating of U.S. allies, his disparagement of NATO and his abrupt pullout in Syria, which went against the advice of his military.

Trump has since branded Mattis "the world's most overrated general."

The first signs of troubled relationships with the generals came early in his presidency.

In the summer of 2017, Trump was in the Situation Room talking about U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan with Mattis, then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster - an Army general - and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others.

The generals had a troop increase request and “thought they were going to stick it up under Trump’s nose and he was going to sign it," a former senior administration official told Reuters.

Trump raised all sorts of questions about the request. A meeting due to last 20 minutes went on for two hours.

"He just ripped them, the generals, everybody. ‘Why are we doing this, when can we get out, what does victory look like?’ It was really uncomfortable," the former official said.

After the meeting broke up, Trump asked them for "real options."

Although Trump initially reversed troop withdrawals in Afghanistan ordered by his White House predecessor, Barack Obama, he ends his term in office with plans to slash them to 4,000 this year and withdraw them completely next year, if a peace deal succeeds.

McMaster, who lasted just over a year as Trump’s national security adviser before being ousted, has sharply criticized Trump’s Afghanistan policy, accusing him of partnering with the Taliban against the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.

Pentagon leaders see alliances as essential both to U.S. influence overseas and security at home. They voice alarm at Trump’s antagonistic approach to allies such as Germany and South Korea even as he boasts of his good relationships with the leaders of China, Russia and North Korea.

Risa Brooks, a professor at Marquette University, said military leaders felt Obama had micromanaged Pentagon issues and some were initially pleased to see Trump’s approach.

"But now I think we're in a whole other level. I think what is going on is that you see some of the stuff Trump is doing is a challenge to the core organizational interests and integrity of the military," she said.

One clear example was Trump's intervention in the case of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who was convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State detainee.

Trump, who saw himself as a champion of troops being mistreated by top brass, reversed the Navy's demotion of Gallagher, and the Navy secretary was later fired.

"I will always stick up for our great fighters," Trump told a Florida rally in November 2019.

© Thomson Reuters 2020.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.

15 Comments
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"I will always stick up for our great fighters," Trump told a Florida rally in November 2019.....

Except for when my lord and master, President Putin, puts bounties on them.

10 ( +11 / -1 )

Looney Tunes.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Mattis disagreed with Trump's berating of U.S. allies, his disparagement of NATO

Yeah, Mattis, it's America First, get with it. Our allies are now finally starting to pay their fair share because of non-politically correct Trump.

and his abrupt pullout in Syria, which went against the advice of his military.

Yeah, Mattis, we want our troops out of Syria even if you don't.

-12 ( +0 / -12 )

"War is a racket." Generals want war. Trump ended the war in Syria. Nuff said. (I am neither pro nor anti Trump, relax)

-9 ( +0 / -9 )

Do not... EVER... use any edition of the Military Times as a credible reference for anything. Especially polls.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

Some people still don't understand:

there's a right way, a wrong way and Trump's way doing things.

He doesn't listen to the professionals and if they have a somewhat differing opinion he fires them.

He is just behaves like an old, uneducated bull in a china shop.

Nothing better to expect from him.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Today's generals in the US armed forces are highly educated. Of course, they want nothing to do with Trump.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

This is from Wikipedia, which as far as I know is not a pro-Trump / a far right news source:

The Russian bounty program is an alleged project of Russian military intelligence, specifically Unit 29155 of the GU, to pay bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American and other allied service members in Afghanistan.*

Alleged. So no actual proof. Oh my.

U.S. intelligence reports from 2019 suggested the existence of the bounty program

Yeah, I seem to remember U.S. intelligence sources telling us that Iraq has WMD. You know, the Iraq that Bush ordered the military to invade with Biden's full support. Oh my.

Today's generals in the US armed forces are highly educated. Of course, they want nothing to do with Trump.

Really! Oh my...

Trump unveils Space Force flag

Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Fm9MvnoPTY

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

"War is a racket." Generals want war. Trump ended the war in Syria. Nuff said.

Nope. US forces remain in Syria guarding oil fields there. The oil fields were one of Daesh primary sources of revenue. US and other nations forces are there to deny them access to those oil fields as well as to deny the Assad regime access to them.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Yeah, Mattis, it's America First, get with it.

General Mattis, who was my boss for a while btw, understood what you apparently do not. Without allies dedicated to the same causes as the US, the US is nothing, essentially powerless in a world that is mostly hostile to notions of guaranteed individual rights, capitalism, free trade and democratic governance. There are a lot of nations who are the sworn enemies of all the west stands for and are not shy about uniting against the west. The US has been successful and there hasn't been a WWIII because it had allies who together with the US formed a block so powerful the Soviets and Chinese and their allies were afraid to challenge it directly. They knew they would lose. That method still works. None of the EU nations like the Chinese any more than the US but absent a unified leadership there is no unified response to them nor is there often an alternative for the smaller EU nations for the kinds of investment money the Chinese are willing to throw at them. The US used to be that kind of leader. Now instead the US has a President who disparages US' NATO allies as being as bad as the US enemies while praising the dictator of the nation NATO was exists to confront. That is not how one leads and certainly not how one prevents the Chinese and Russians from dominating the world to our detriment. Instead of picking fights with the EU, Japan and South Korea the US should be leading them in a unified response to Chinese mercantilism and ip theft. China can be contained but not if the west is too busy fighting among each other. That doesn't put US interests first. Btw, when you talk about nations paying their fair share, consider that the bleeding, dying and material destruction will be mostly confined to the lands of Americas allies. If the enemy ends up on US soil a lot of things went very wrong! A big part of having US forces abroad is to fight the enemy on their soil and not on US soil. Unfortunately for the allies that means it is their cities that will be destroyed and their civilians who will suffer mass casualties. In a notional second Korean War first day casualties would be over one million. Half of South Korea's population is within artillery range of North Korea and people live in big apartment blocks with tens of thousands of residents each. It doesn't take too many artillery hits to kill hundreds of thousands in a few minutes at the outset of such a war. In light of that who is counting pennies? Get real. US allies will bleed horribly if there is a war on their land.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Trump says he knows more than the generals about everything. Hail Caesar.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Desert TortoiseSep. 25  10:08 pm JST

"War is a racket." Generals want war. Trump ended the war in Syria. Nuff said.

Nope. US forces remain in Syria guarding oil fields there. The oil fields were one of Daesh primary sources of revenue. US and other nations forces are there to deny them access to those oil fields as well as to deny the Assad regime access to them.

I am a veteran and recently at a VA waiting room I saw a recent issue of 'Army Times' and it said clearly and specifically that even though Trump claimed ISIL was beaten and the war was over, the forces there have not pulled out a single inch from Syrian or Iraqi territory. They are openly contradicting what he said, IOW they admit that Trump is a LIAR.

He has no respect for dead soldiers, they are 'suckers' and 'losers' to him. He calls vets with PTSD 'weak'. Let's not forget his prying contempt for the carrier captain who was looking out for his crew when some members got sick with C-19. With this total disrespect he has for the Armed Forces, and his wicked haughty gleefulness for Guardsmen setting up nets at the Rio Grande a few years ago on a Thanksgiving weekend, it's a wonder that any veteran or military personnel would have any respect for such an unmanly commander-in-chief who hates them as much as he does. I don't. I thank God I'm not in the service now because I would tell this uncouth immature criminal traitor where to put it!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Fewer than four months to go until the criminal proceedings against Trump et al. can begin.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I am a veteran and recently at a VA waiting room I saw a recent issue of 'Army Times' and it said clearly and specifically that even though Trump claimed ISIL was beaten and the war was over, the forces there have not pulled out a single inch from Syrian or Iraqi territory.

It was only a week or so ago a US Army patrol ran into a Russian patrol and there as a collision between vehicles in Syria leading to some injuries.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

specifically that even though Trump claimed ISIL was beaten and the war was over, the forces there have not pulled out a single inch from Syrian or Iraqi territory.

Well they pulled out of the Kurdish controlled areas and handed them over to the gentle mercies of the Turks. I am certain those soldiers obeyed that order through gritted teeth.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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