Trump’s impulsive decrees weigh on Pentagon
President Donald Trump’s flare for the unpredictable has taken a toll on his defense leaders, handing them orders and major policy shifts with little or no notice — ranging from his transgender ban, a military parade and a separate Space Force to his musings about reducing U.S. troop strength in Europe or intervening in Venezuela.
This week added the specter that another capricious decree may be in the works, when the Russian military reported that President Vladimir Putin and Trump had reached a private agreement at their Helsinki summit to join forces to rebuild war-torn Syria. Such a deal would mark a major change for the U.S. troops battling the Islamic State, who are barred by law from cooperating with Russian troops fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime.
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The top U.S. commander in the region, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told reporters he has received “no such direction at this point,” nor has he requested permission to do so. “I have not asked for that at this point and we’ll see what direction comes down.”
Previously, surprise directives from the commander-in-chief have demanded significant attention from top officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. And they have almost never involved what the Pentagon considers top priorities.
Former officials also say Trump’s impulsive decrees undercut the administration’s effort to reverse the White House micromanaging of the military that commanders grumbled about during the Obama administration.
Before Trump, “you certainly never had a directive coming straight from the president via Twitter,” said a former senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military officials he knows. “That adds an extra layer of instability and stress to an organization that is already under a lot of stress.”
Loren Schulman, who served in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said past administrations had “a policy process where you don’t spring really big changes on the Pentagon with no warning at all.”
“My guess is that Mattis and Dunford have to spend a lot more time shepherding the development of answers to Trump’s questions and then dealing with the press fallout,” added Schulman, who’s now with the Center for a New American Security.
Schulman noted that Obama also caught his top Defense Department leaders off guard in 2011, when he announced major cuts to the military budget just months after a long-scheduled Pentagon strategy review. “This was a total shock” to the defense secretary at the time, Robert Gates, whom Obama informed just a few days before giving a speech on the cuts, Schulman recalled.
But Trump has thrown out a series of curveballs to his commanders. He demanded the ban on transgender troops via an early-morning tweet, for example, and offered the Pentagon little or no notice before announcing his Space Force and canceling military exercises in South Korea.
Pentagon officials downplayed the unusual nature of Trump’s orders.
A spokesman for Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, downplayed the unusual nature of Trump’s orders.
Dunford’s “focus and that of the Joint Staff is on supporting their priorities in a timely and effective manner, regardless of whether it’s a long-standing issue or emerging requirement,” said Col. Patrick Ryder, Dunford’s spokesman. “This is what the Joint Staff exists to do.”
Tom Crosson, a spokesman for Mattis, said that “the secretary’s priorities for the department are aligned with the administration.”
Here are some of Trump’s distracting directives and how the Pentagon has responded to them.
In January, Trump told top military leaders during a visit to the Pentagon to start planning a parade in the nation’s capital to showcase U.S. military might.
The Pentagon has since picked Veterans Day weekend to hold the parade, which the White House budget director has told Congress is expected to cost up to $30 million. (CNN recently reported a figure of $12 million.) It’s unclear where the money will come from, and Trump’s order came too late for parade funding to be addressed in the defense budget.
Democratic lawmakers have sought to block the parade, which some say would be an unnecessary expense. One House Armed Services Committee member, Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) introduced the memorably named PARADE Act—“Preventing the Allocation of Resources for Absurd Defense Expenditures.”
Mattis dodged a question early this year when asked whether the parade would divert resources from other priorities. He said only that the order reflected “the president’s respect, his fondness for the military.”
Troops in Europe
The most recent hot potato Trump has tossed to the military came last month, when he reportedly told military leaders he was surprised at how many troops the United States has based in Germany (some 35,000) and questioned whether so many were really necessary, a development first reported by The Washington Post.
The Pentagon is reviewing the size of its troop presence in Germany, but it says it is doing so only as part of routine assessments that its overseas headquarters conduct. It says it has not received any formal request from the National Security Council to draw up troop-cut plans.
The prospect of White House-mandated troop cuts in Germany has alarmed European allies. But it has also raised worries about disruptions to ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations, especially in Africa, many of which are run out of Germany.
A Venezuela war plan?
In a strange turn for a president who campaigned on the promise to “never send our finest into battle unless necessary,” Trump last summer mused publicly about using U.S. troops for an entirely new mission: imposing order in the chaotic South American nation of Venezuela.
“We are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away,” Trump said in public remarks in August. “We have many options for Venezuela, including possibly a military option if necessary.”
A recent report from the Associated Press revealed that the day before his public remarks, Trump raised the issue with then-national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and other officials, briefly arguing when a surprised McMaster laid out a list of ways military action in Venezuela could backfire.
The next week, Pentagon spokesmen struggled to explain how the military was responding to Trump’s comments, saying that “standard military planning” was ongoing. “If called upon we would have a military option for the president,” a spokesman said, but no formal request had come from the White House.
A few months later, Trump shocked Latin American heads of state when he again broached the possibility.