Distrust between the commander in chief and Pentagon leadership has reached a near-unprecedented level, analysts and military insiders say, with both sides of the Potomac eyeing the other anxiously as Election Day draws near.
As President Trump publicly bashes his own past and present defense officials and casts them as tools of the military-industrial complex, Pentagon leaders are working overtime to distance themselves from an increasingly ugly political contest and to ensure they aren’t dragged into any post-election electoral dispute between the incumbent and Democrat Joseph R. Biden.
Taken together, those dynamics have sparked a level of tension and mutual skepticism between the White House and Pentagon that has rarely been seen before, specialists say. The clearest example may be the relationship between Mr. Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, which looks to be chilly at best following a series of high-profile clashes on hot-button policy issues such as the Confederate flag and the military’s role in policing civil unrest.
“There’s just great unease in the Pentagon,” said Jim Townsend, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration. “There’s uneasiness among the professionals there, both military and civilian.”
“Esper is probably uneasy about what the White House might end up asking him to do,” Mr. Townsend told The Washington Times. “But the word also is he’s not going to be around” much longer.
Indeed, there was widespread speculation — and, in some corners, an expectation — that the president would fire Mr. Esper after the Pentagon chief publicly opposed a plan to deploy active-duty military troops to quell riots in American cities over the summer. Mr. Trump ultimately abandoned that plan and Mr. Esper has remained in his job, though it seems likely the president will pick a new defense chief if he wins reelection in November.
Mr. Esper’s uncertain future is one factor that has contributed to the tense situation. Another is the growing fear among current and former military officials that the president could seek to enlist the military for electoral purposes, perhaps to deal with post-election demonstrations.
Other observers believe the military ultimately may have to oust Mr. Trump from the White House if he loses to Mr. Biden but refuses to leave. The president has said he’ll accept the results of a fair election.
There are signs the increasing political outspokenness of ex-military brass is starting to worry those still in the ranks. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger, in a recent “State of the Marine Corp” online session organized by Defense One, said even retired military leaders should be careful about offering partisan political opinions.
“When your introduction is ‘retired admiral,’ ‘retired general,’ there is a direct connecting tissue back to those of us who are wearing uniform today, and we must remain apolitical,” he said. “I ask them to be very thoughtful about engaging either side, it doesn’t matter, in partisan politics.”
For their part, the Pentagon’s current top leaders insist they have no intention of wading into politics.
In written answers to lawmakers last month, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley said flatly that the armed forces will have “no role” in the American electoral process.
“I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military,” Gen. Milley said.
Combined with Mr. Esper’s previous opposition to the deployment of active-duty forces to American cities, it’s clear both men want to avoid politics and, unless absolutely necessary, avoid sending troops to clash with fellow American citizens.
“Everybody is keeping their fingers crossed and not knowing what to expect,” Mr. Townsend said of the current environment.
Politics and civil unrest are just the most recent rifts.
As racial unrest gripped much of the nation over the summer after the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in Minneapolis police custody, the Pentagon began a review of 10 Army bases named after Confederate generals. Mr. Trump publicly vowed to block any such changes.
Mr. Esper and other military officials also penned a carefully worded policy that effectively banned the Confederate flag at armed forces installations. The policy did not actually address the specific flag but instead laid out criteria for which banners could be flown — criteria that the Confederacy’s “Stars and Bars” did not meet.
The Pentagon’s delicate handling of the issue helped avoid another public confrontation with the president.
For his part, Mr. Trump has leaned into the distance between himself and Pentagon leaders, appealing to veteran and active-duty voters by criticizing their superiors in unusually blunt terms.
“I’m not saying the military’s in love with me,” Mr. Trump said at a recent news conference. “The soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
White House officials sought to add context those comments, suggesting that the president wasn’t referring to Mr. Esper or Gen. Milley specifically but instead speaking about broader issues of military policy and spending.
Mr. Trump argues that he has followed through on a major campaign promise to wind down endless wars in the Middle East, and it’s true that he has significantly reduced America’s military presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
But an apparent disconnect between Mr. Trump’s foreign policy approach — a key piece of his hallmark “America First” agenda — and the views of his appointees has only added fuel to the fire.
“America has never seen this level of mutual distrust between the president and his military leaders. Firstly, President Trump appointed Pentagon leaders who opposed him and the America First agenda,” said J.D. Gordon, former Trump campaign national security adviser and Pentagon spokesman. “Never have so many top political appointees been so richly, yet undeservedly rewarded in this country.”
Indeed, some former Trump appointees have now turned into some of his harshest critics. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis is perhaps the best example, with the retired Marine Corps general declaring over the summer that Mr. Trump is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.”
Retired Air Force General Paul Selva, whom Mr. Trump himself re-nominated for a term as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff early in his presidency, was one of nearly 500 military and national security leaders who signed a recent letter strongly endorsing Mr. Biden for president.
‘They don’t trust him’
While Mr. Gordon argued that personnel decisions have been a major contributing factor to today’s antagonistic atmosphere, he said the unconventional Mr. Trump has taken other actions that have deepened the divide.
The president “has at times put his top national security leaders in difficult positions,” Mr. Gordon told The Times. “Whether a photo op after clashing with a civilian mob outside the White House, referring to Secretary Esper as ‘Esperanto,’ which is some made-up international language, or publicly calling out a military-industrial complex, it’s easy to see why they don’t trust him.”
The June 1 clash between law enforcement and protesters in Lafayette Square brought about arguably the clearest break so far between Mr. Trump and top military leaders. After demonstrators were aggressively cleared out of the area, the president walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church and posed for photographs along with other top administration officials, including Mr. Esper.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley also was with Mr. Trump outside the White House, clad in his battle dress uniform, though he was not in the St. John’s photo.
In the days afterwards, both men broke with the president in their own ways. Mr. Esper came out against the president’s proposal to invoke the Insurrection Act and send active-duty forces into American towns.
“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now,” the secretary said.
Several days later, Gen. Milley admitted he made a mistake appearing with Mr. Trump.
“I should not have been there,” he said in pre-recorded remarks to the graduating class of the National Defense University on June 11.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” he said. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
Whether by coincidence or design, Mr. Esper was far from the U.S. political spotlight this week as Mr. Trump engaged in his first critical debate with Mr. Biden.
As Washington was consumed Wednesday with the fallout from the contentious debate in Cleveland, Mr. Esper was arriving in Tunisia for a multi-day tour of North Africa that will also take him to Algeria and Morocco this week.
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Mark Esper, Defense chief, effectively bans display of Confederate flag on military properties
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Friday announced a new Pentagon policy that effectively prohibits the display of the Confederate flag at military facilities, but he stopped short of mentioning the specific symbol. In a memo, the Pentagon chief unveiled new guidance authorizing the display of specific flags, including the American flag, flags of the…
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Friday announced a new Pentagon policy that effectively prohibits the display of the Confederate flag at military facilities, but he stopped short of mentioning the specific symbol.
In a memo, the Pentagon chief unveiled new guidance authorizing the display of specific flags, including the American flag, flags of the U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia, military flags, POW/MIA flags, and allied flags, and prohibits the use of “unauthorized flags.” The Confederate flag is not included in the list of authorized flags.
“The flags we fly must accord with the military imperatives of good order and discipline, treating all our people with dignity and respect, and rejecting divisive symbols,” Mr. Esper wrote in the memo.
“That is why we honor the American flag, which is the principal flag we are authorized and encouraged to display.”
The guidance applies to the public display or depiction of flags in all Defense Department workplaces, common access areas and public areas, and bans the display of flags “where the nature of the display or depiction cannot reasonably be viewed as endorsement of the flag” by the Pentagon.
A draft version of the memo had reportedly banned the explicit display of the Confederate flag, but the released memo signals efforts to strike a compromise on the controversial matter.
Mr. Esper’s announcement follows weeks of nationwide anti-racism protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer, and calls for the Confederate flag to be banned from military properties and bases that honor Confederate leaders to be renamed.
The effort saw early support from several branches of the military after the Navy, Marine Corps and several arms of the military abroad announced a ban on the display of the Confederate flag last month.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, in a congressional hearing last week backed efforts to end any and all military practices that portray the Confederacy in a positive light. Glorification of the Confederate cause, he said, is problematic for a military that’s increasingly made up of Black service members.
Mr. Esper said that the new policy “will further improve the morale, cohesion, and readiness of the force in defense of our great Nation.”
The move saw praise from the top Democrats on Capitol Hill including Sen. Jack Reed, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who called it “long overdue.”
“Flags are symbols and this is a symbolic move that demonstrates that racism and discrimination have no place in an organization that requires unity of purpose and action,” the Rhode Island Democrat said in a statement Friday afternoon.
“The military is engaged in serious, meaningful self-examination, action, and reform to address these challenges,” Mr. Reed said. “That long march toward progress must continue.”
Rep. Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that in his announcement, Mr. Esper “clearly codified which flags are permissible for public display across the Department.”
“By omitting the Confederate flag from the list of approved flags, the guidance makes clear that there is no place for that symbol in public DOD settings, which is an important change in policy that I strongly support.”
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Mark Esper, Defense chief, issues diversity memo, wants answers by mid-August
Senior Pentagon officials have until Aug. 15 to tell Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper what they are doing to implement policies to handle questions of racism and discrimination with each of the military services. In a memorandum released Wednesday, Mr. Esper issued several directives that follow recommendations that came from throughout the Department of…
Senior Pentagon officials have until Aug. 15 to tell Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper what they are doing to implement policies to handle questions of racism and discrimination with each of the military services.
In a memorandum released Wednesday, Mr. Esper issued several directives that follow recommendations that came from throughout the Department of Defense.
He wants military officials to review hairstyle and grooming policies for any signs of racial bias. Each military service also is expected to review appearance standards and policies and make “appropriate policy modifications” by mid-September.
The armed forces will no longer include photographs as part of a promotion or command board or any other process involving selecting personnel for assignments or training. All references to race, ethnicity or gender will be removed “to ensure promotion boards and selection processes enable equal opportunity for all.”
Notably absent from Mr. Esper’s memorandum is any mention of the controversy over Army posts named for Confederate generals such as Braxton Bragg or John Bell Hood or the display of the Confederate battle flag.
Mr. Esper also wants an update on the military’s equal opportunity and inclusion policies.
“The (Defense Department) will update its military harassment policy to strengthen protections for servicemembers against inappropriate and intolerable harassing behaviors,” the memorandum stated.
The new policy follows several weeks’ worth of protests and demonstrations throughout the country following the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Mr. Esper wrote that prejudice and bias within the U.S. military are not always transparent. He wants officials to increase the frequency of workplace and equal opportunity surveys to gauge their policy’s effectiveness and identify any areas that need improvement.
Mr. Esper also wants monthly updates through the end of the year.
“The actions I am directing are a necessary first step but hard work remains and we will continue to learn as we move forward,” he wrote.
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Mark Esper, Defense Secretary, battles Pentagon vacancies
A rash of resignations has left U.S. military leaders scrambling to fill vacancies in key positions throughout the Pentagon and has sparked a standoff with lawmakers who are convinced that President Trump’s personal politics drive hirings, firings and promotions inside the Defense Department. The Pentagon over the past three weeks has been given at least…
A rash of resignations has left U.S. military leaders scrambling to fill vacancies in key positions throughout the Pentagon and has sparked a standoff with lawmakers who are convinced that President Trump’s personal politics drive hirings, firings and promotions inside the Defense Department.
The Pentagon over the past three weeks has been given at least four high-level resignations, including from top officials who had privately raised concerns with some of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy moves, most notably the decision last year to temporarily halt military aid to Ukraine.
The president’s recent threat to use active-duty troops to suppress nationwide riots — a threat he ultimately decided against — also has had a chilling effect throughout the Pentagon. It has even led to public friction between Mr. Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper and sparked an almost unprecedented wave of military criticism aimed at the commander in chief.
But critics say that overt resistance to Mr. Trump raises its own long-term questions of civilian-military relations and could draw the Pentagon into the partisan fights it has long sought to avoid.
Mr. Trump’s influence on personnel moves now is coming under an even harsher spotlight. Last week, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, Illinois Democrat, vowed to block the Senate confirmations of more than 1,100 senior military promotions until Mr. Esper confirmed the promotion of Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who offered testimony in the House’s impeachment inquiry against the president.
On Wednesday, his lawyer said Col. Vindman will retire from the Army.
Col. Vindman and his twin brother, a National Security Council aide, were abruptly dismissed from their White House posts in February.
While deep concerns over political retribution exist inside the Pentagon, specialists say, the wave of resignations goes beyond that. They argue that a perfect storm of circumstances has come together: the usual exodus during the final months of any presidential term, frustration with Mr. Trump’s policies among top Pentagon officials, and a White House that increasingly feels it has to get genuine supporters of Mr. Trump’s agenda into key posts if the president’s often untraditional foreign and military policies are to be carried out.
“Even if the president wins a second term, they know there’s often a turnover in personnel. And they might get caught in that,” said Mark F. Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former official in the Defense Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget. “There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to stay in your job. … So a lot of people bail before the election.
“And I think Trump is getting more comfortable firing people,” Mr. Cancian said. “I think it’s a combination of those things.”
For Pentagon leaders, the exits have come at a crucial time. The military is dealing with a long-term strategy shift to face a growing threat posed by China, is implementing an unexpected redeployment of troops from Germany ordered by Mr. Trump, and is managing a major drawdown of forces from Afghanistan. That list does not even include the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slowed training and deployments, sidelined aircraft carriers, and forced the Pentagon to direct huge amounts of time and resources toward domestic medical assistance and research into a coronavirus vaccine.
The resignation trend, however, began even before those issues emerged. In December, at least five top Pentagon officials announced their departures. They included Randall G. Schriver, a key policy voice who served as assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security.
In February, John C. Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, announced his resignation. Mr. Trump’s proposed replacement, retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata, sparked controversy with revelations of inflammatory tweets, including some that critics consider Islamophobic.
At least two influential retired generals pulled their support for Gen. Tata after those Twitter posts were revealed.
As that nomination worked its way through the Senate, the Pentagon was hit with another wave of resignations.
Acting Pentagon Comptroller Elaine McCusker announced her resignation June 16 after she was passed over for the permanent post. Ms. McCusker acknowledged raising concerns about the White House freeze on aid to Ukraine last year, an issue that ultimately led to the president’s impeachment in the House. He was acquitted by the Senate.
On June 18, Kathryn Wheelbarger, acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, announced her resignation. Ms. Wheelbarger was expected to move on to a top intelligence post inside the Pentagon, but the White House pulled her nomination.
Ms. Wheelbarger served as a top aide on the Senate Armed Services Committee during the chairmanship of Sen. John McCain, a top political enemy of the president. She was also viewed as a close ally of former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned in protest in late 2018 over Mr. Trump’s Syria policy.
Her resignation, perhaps more than all of the others, seems to have struck a nerve with current and former Pentagon officials.
“She is someone I got to know well over the last three years and, with sincere appreciation for her many contributions and years of service, I wish Katie the very best in what I’m sure will be a very bright future,” Mr. Esper said in a statement last month.
“Katie Wheelbarger is one of the most talented and dedicated public servants with whom I’ve ever had the privilege to serve. It is a mistake not to promote her to higher levels of service at this time,” Mr. Schriver told Politico last month.
The week after Ms. Wheelbarger’s exit, Michael Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of research and engineering, and his top deputy, Lisa Porter, submitted their resignations.
⦁ Lauren Meier contributed to this report.
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