Elephants in the Room

Trump Battled the Navy. Here Are the Casualties.

Ten takeaways from the biggest civil-military crisis (so far) of the Trump administration.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with West Point cadets
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with West Point cadets before boarding Marine One and departing the White House on Nov. 8. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump has won the battle against his own Department of Defense in his long-running campaign to protect Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was accused of serious war crimes and found guilty of a lesser crime. Chief Petty Officer Gallagher will be allowed to retire as a SEAL and, so far as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley is concerned, the case is “closed.”

As with any battle, however, once the fighting is over it is time to count the casualties. The most obvious casualty is Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, who was forced to resign because of his handling of the Gallagher case. But a full reckoning of the butcher’s bill must factor in the damage to civil-military relations more generally, particularly the way the president does and does not involve his own team in the making of policy.

Focusing only on the civil-military relations aspects of the larger affair, here are ten short takeaways:

1. The president has thus far acted within the prerogatives of his authority as commander in chief. The Constitution gives him broad pardoning and clemency powers and, by definition, those involve interfering in a legal process. Clemency only arises when the system produces one outcome and the president believes a different outcome is more just. One can debate whether the commander in chief powers extend to letting Gallagher keep his status as a SEAL. If that is viewed as a technical certification like a pilot’s license, a case could be made that this falls outside the president’s purview. But the president’s commander in chief powers are vast and, based on public reporting, Department of Defense lawyers did not challenge the president’s discretion even on this matter.

2. Trump has the right to do what he did, but that does not make it right. Under the principle of civilian control, Trump has the right to be wrong. But when a President exercises right to be wrong on matters that the military care deeply about, the President tends to pay a price.

3. In this case, the price is first and foremost a decline in trust within the policymaking process. What was noteworthy about the president’s initial decisions to grant pardons and clemency was not that he was intervening in a military judicial process. Rather, it was that he was doing so against what appears to have been the near-unanimous counsel of the relevant chain of command—the senior civilian leadership within the Defense Department and the senior military leadership. The president dismissed the concerns raised by his own hand-picked team and, in so doing, undermined their own authority, making them less effective in their own jobs and complicating the process the next time a tough decision needs to be made. Let’s be clear: Trump is acting within his prerogatives as commander in chief, but he is doing so in a cavalier manner that contributes to mistrust within civil-military relations. When Trump’s predecessors did less egregious versions of this sort of behavior, it proved poisonous for their relations with the military and took a great deal of remedial effort to undo the damage.

4. Acting as he did, Trump underscored a dramatic shift that has occurred over the last several years. During the first two years of his tenure, many critics expressed concern about an overly large military voice in the policymaking process. Active and recently retired senior military officers occupied many of the most critical posts that are usually reserved for civilians: White House chief of staff, secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, national security advisor, and so on. Perhaps, it was argued, the military has too much influence over policymaking. With the departure of all these active and retired military, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, with the military apparently largely out of the loop. Who is the president’s primary military advisor, the voice he most wants to hear before making a national security decision? In the first two years of his presidency, that question was hard to answer, because there were so many at the cabinet rank who could vie for that role; today, it is hard to answer because there are so few whom the president seems inclined to listen to.

5. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper drew attention to this aspect of the affair by emphasizing that he was ordering Spencer to retire because Spencer had done an end run around Esper’s authority by saying one thing to the defense secretary and another thing to the White House. Trump also wanted Spencer fired because he was dragging his feet. It is possible to commit both fouls at the same time—foot-dragging and end-running—and so the two complaints are not inherently contradictory. But the fact that Spencer ran afoul of both dramatizes how difficult it is to function when normal processes are thrown out the window.

6. At least in his public messaging, the president has shown very little understanding of why the senior leaders within the Department of Defense opposed his recent moves. The United States’ ability to use the military to defend U.S. interests abroad depends, in part, on its record of policing its own troops, which allows it to negotiate favorable terms from host nations. To be sure, that record is not perfect, but it is a very good record, especially in recent years and compared to the behavior of great powers throughout history. The U.S. military believes and trains on the presumption that holding itself to high standards is a necessary part of the bedrock foundation of military professionalism. Of course, it is possible for the military justice system to miscarry, and, if that happens, the commander in chief is right to step in and remedy the situation. But in that case, the president would have been wise to talk about the issue with greater sensitivity to the trade-offs that were concerning his advisors.

7. There is an interesting senior officer versus junior officer/enlisted undercurrent to these conflicts. Trump is consistently siding with the junior ranks over the senior ranks. Even though the senior brass were apparently unanimous in preferring that he not intervene, Trump is likely correct that some of his actions are more popular among the lower rank and file. Of course, picking sides and sowing discord within the ranks is not conducive to healthy military professionalism. While the enlisted and junior officers have extraordinary latitude in the U.S. military compared to the armed forces of other states, the military remains highly hierarchical and for good reason: The chain of command is essential for holding the military accountable for the awesome power it enjoys.

8. The current conflict exacerbates long-standing friction between active and retired officers, especially those of the latter who enjoy a public pulpit as commentators on cable news. For decades, the leaders of the active military force have chafed at having their homework graded on live TV, especially by people whose own military experience may not position them optimally to understand the issues at play and whose currency on contemporary issues may be out of date. In the past, these voices have mainly been a source of annoyance. Today, at least on some issues, the outside forces may be the primary military advisors to the commander in chief.

9. Trump came into office without a good feel for military affairs. Many presidents start out with the same limitation. What is concerning is that there is not a lot of evidence that he has learned on the job. On the contrary, while he has grown in self-confidence in this area, he has not demonstrated a comparable growth in sensitivity to civil-military issues. In that sense, unlike any of his predecessors, the concerns about how he carries out the commander in chief role are as great in year three as they were in year one.

10. At the end of the day, this is not a crisis, but it could be a harbinger of a crisis. The president has the authority to do what he did. His advisors had very good reason to do what they did. At the end of the day, they failed to persuade the president that their way was preferable, and a senior civilian political appointee got fired as a result. However, the messiness of the process raises real doubts about how this team would handle a genuine national security crisis where lives hung in the balance depending on time-sensitive decisions. The willingness of the president to treat issuing a tweet as tantamount to issuing an order, to trust what he heard on Fox News over what his own advisors were telling him, and to humiliate his own advisors in public does not reassure us about how the administration would operate under more dire circumstances.

I do not expect the president to pay much of a political price for this affair—not in the short run, anyway. As the impeachment inquiry hearings have shown, the president’s political base is hardened against bad news or evidence of untoward behavior. But the president still has to govern and function as commander in chief, and his day-to-day effectiveness there hinges less on what polls say and more on what he and his own leadership team does. Trump’s victory in the Gallagher affair may prove Pyrrhic, imposing costs that make his job and the job of his own national security team that much harder to do well.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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