Veterans Fear Trump Will Use Military as Election Gambit

Trump resuming campaign rallies has veterans nervous that U.S. troops could find themselves in the political crossfire.

U.S. President Donald Trump greets supporters during a campaign rally aboard the USS Iowa on Sept. 15, 2015, in Los Angeles, California.
U.S. President Donald Trump greets supporters during a campaign rally aboard the USS Iowa on Sept. 15, 2015, in Los Angeles, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Veterans groups are worried that President Donald Trump could inappropriately use the U.S. military on the campaign trail after the White House’s turbulent response to racial injustice protests that saw the Defense Department’s top military officer join a controversial photo-op, even after the Pentagon has tried to keep its distance from the response in recent weeks. 

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, earned plaudits last week by saying he regretted joining Trump’s walk across Lafayette Square after federal law enforcement cleared peaceful demonstrators from the area with pepper spray, just a week after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was asphyxiated under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, sparking international protests. 

But Trump—who has frequently exaggerated U.S. military spending since he took office—has done little to quell fears that the military could be used as a political prop as he is set to resume campaign rallies this week in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The president made no mention of the apolitical role of the military while giving a speech to graduating cadets on Saturday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. 

“This story is not over yet. We are going to go into a very contentious three to four months,” said David Barno, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who commanded American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. “It would be useful for him at some point to make the point that the military is an apolitical institution. It’s not an interest group that can be persuaded.”

Yet even as the number of National Guardsmen deployed to deal with nationwide protests fell to just 7,000 troops on Monday—after a heated debate in the administration over whether Trump would invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to send active-duty units to quell the demonstrations—the military still appeared entangled in the brewing campaign season.

In the hours after the West Point speech—which featured Stryker armored vehicles perched in the crowd near the socially distanced cadets—a campaign-style video quickly surfaced on the White House’s Twitter account, just as the handle had featured videos of the president’s now infamous walk to St. John’s Church two weeks ago. The photo-op outside the church prompted rebukes from former Defense Secretary James Mattis and a host of retired military leaders, including former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

But even after Milley apologized in a prerecorded speech at the National Defense University’s graduation last week, some veterans groups would like to see the U.S. military’s top officer go further with his regrets.

“I would like to see an apology for the fact that he was walking around later that evening on the streets of D.C.,” said Will Goodwin, a West Point graduate and director of government relations for VoteVets, a progressive political organization focused on veterans affairs. “They brought the 82nd Airborne Division to the outskirts of D.C. with bayonets. There was no apology for that.”

The Trump administration has often sparred with local officials over plans for elaborate military parades that have been a White House fixation ever since the president attended Bastille Day ceremonies in Paris in July 2017 that featured tanks and fighter jets circling the parade route, and veterans are worried that active-duty troops could once again get caught in a political photo-op this summer.

The administration is already working on plans for a July 3 military flyover at Mount Rushmore to mark the Independence Day holiday that could end up being fodder for viral campaign tweets, experts said.

“The blending of the official White House accounts and the campaigns is complete,” said Fred Wellman, a former spokesperson for Gens. David Petraeus and Martin Dempsey and now CEO at ScoutComms. “They’re just not even trying anymore.”

Throughout the administration, the Pentagon has become accustomed to getting blindsided by Trump broadsides on Twitter, including the administration’s policy banning transgender service members from the military. Now, the active debate over renaming 10 U.S. Army bases named after Confederate generals, sparked by the Floyd protests, has deepened that schism. “The idea that the U.S. military has to watch the president’s Twitter feed for guidance changes should horrify anyone who’s served,” Wellman added.

“It’s ironic and extreme to have young men and women who take an oath to support the Constitution, the United States, go and do their training at a base name for someone who took up arms against the United States for about the worst cause you could ever have for a rebellion,” Sen. Angus King, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Foreign Policy in an interview. “Why not name a base for a Medal of Honor winner, rather than someone who attacked our country in the name of slavery?”

But the Senate, which has tucked a provision into the Defense Department’s annual authorizing bill that would force the Pentagon to rename the bases, may push back on the increasing efforts to politicize the U.S. military through nominating hearings. In a surprise on Monday, Sen. Jack Reed, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Democrat, came out against Trump’s pick to be the Pentagon’s top policy official, Anthony Tata—who has stumped for the president on Fox News—over Islamophobic comments he made that have surfaced in the media.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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