Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promised to quickly get rid of the top level of senior military officers serving in uniform. But if Trump actually follows through on his plan to purge President Obama’s generals as his first order of business, he could provoke a crisis in civil-military relations at the very beginning of his presidency.
Last year, Trump claimed to more know than the generals on the ground about how to fight the Islamic State. In September, during a Commander in Chief Forum, he said the generals during the Obama administration had been “reduced to rubble” and that if he were elected, he would convene his top generals within 30 days of taking office to provide him with a new plan, but “they’ll probably be different generals.”
Traditionally, presidents have felt free to appoint three- and four-star generals they are comfortable with, but they wait until those officers’ terms in their posts expire. Also, presidents don’t typically interfere in the selection of generals at the lower, one- and two-star levels. What Trump is proposing, an immediate and thorough housecleaning, could provoke pushback from the military and accusations of political interference from the public.
“It would cost a lot to get rid of them. Is this a fight that they really want?” said Tom Donnelly, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “What would be the reward? Who do they think they would put in? The story will be that he wants to politicize the officer corps.”
Those advising Trump on military matters contend that the current crop of uniformed military leaders need to go because they have refused to push back against an Obama White House that has pursued a military strategy against the Islamic State that is too slow, too restrictive and too focused on what Trump allies see as political considerations, such as the rights of detainees and the drive to minimize civilian casualties.
Trump has said he would bring back harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, kill the families of terrorists as a deterrent and “bomb the hell out of” areas where terrorists are located, regardless of the collateral damage. As president, Trump may want generals who agree with all of those things in advance.
“We need to find the loyalties of the generals who are willing to do what is unpopular for their career,” said Carl Higbie, spokesman for a major pro-Trump super PAC who has advised Trump directly on the issue. “I couldn’t comment on the scope of a purge, but from an ideological standpoint you have to find who are the people who are actually there to win the war and who are the people who are just trying to maintain their careers.”
To some defense experts and former officials, a purge of generals based on their willingness to support a president’s policies would be a dangerous endeavor that flew in the face of military culture and tradition. It might also cause a crisis in civil-military relations.
“This view that there’s a need to ideologically purge the military of those who are out to protect their careers is completely antithetical to the professionalism of the all-volunteer force,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, who served in the Pentagon and the White House during the Obama administration.
The entire point of having a professional core of career military officers is so that any president can get factual, objective information and analysis from military leaders who don’t have to think about whether or not they are agreeing with their civilian bosses, she said.
“That will have incredible consequences for civil-military relations if Trump does this in the way he suggested he would during the campaign,” Schulman said.
Fueling concerns are reports that former Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn is Trump’s leading candidate for national security adviser. Flynn was purged himself in 2014 by his superiors in the military intelligence community. He clashed with two Obama appointees, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, over whether the war against Islamic extremism was going as well as the Obama White House claimed. Just before he stepped down, he said publicly that the U.S. was not safer from terrorism than before 9/11 and that al-Qaeda was “not on the run,” directly contradicting Obama.
Clapper announced his resignation Thursday, meaning he is not willing to serve under Trump and perhaps Flynn.
Another Trump transition leader who has sharp criticisms of current military and intelligence leaders regarding the war on terrorism is House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). He has been a driving force in investigating whether intelligence analysts at U.S. Central Command were pressured by their superiors to present overly optimistic reports on the war against the Islamic State.
Nunes is now one of the three Trump transition officials in charge of national security appointments, along with former congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Reagan-era official Frank Gaffney, following the Trump team’s decision to dismiss former congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
If Trump does decide to dismiss generals in an unprecedented way, there’s not much that could be done to stop him. Disrupting the complicated military promotion system is messy but within the president’s prerogative. Congress could provide a check by refusing to confirm new flag officers, but the Republican leaders of the relevant committees rarely use that option.
The real question now is whether or not Trump was just blustering during the campaign about purging the generals who are serving now, and if not, does he want independent military advice or just a rubber stamp for his own ideas on fighting terrorism.