Since then, there has been this odd Kabuki theater in which Trump pretends he has given an order and that he’s doing the military a favor and the military continues to act as if the president’s tweets do not exist and the issue remains under study.
In some cases the military’s pushback has gone further. A service secretary actively spoke out against the president’s tweets, as reported by the Hill’s Ellen Mitchell:
Recently confirmed Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said he will follow any order the president gives on transgender troops, but that “any patriot” should be allowed to serve.“We will process and take direction of a policy that is developed by the [defense] secretary [with] direction from the president and march out smartly,” Spencer told reporters Thursday night after visiting Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.“On a fundamental basis, any patriot that wants to serve and meets all the requirements should be able to serve in our military.”The comments seem to break with the long-held understanding that service leaders are meant to stay within the chain of command and implement a president’s directives rather than speak out, according to a source close to top Pentagon officials.“In my memory, I would consider that an unusual public statement to make,” the source told The Hill.
Nor is Spencer the only high-ranking DOD official to openly resist Trump’s dictates on this question. As Mitchell previously reported:
Coast Guard officials reached out personally to their transgender service members to express support after President Trump’s announcement of a new policy barring transgender people in the military, according to Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.“The first thing we did is we reached out to all 13 members of the Coast Guard who have come out” as transgender, Zukunft told attendees at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington….Zukunft added that he then reached out to now former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — who became White House chief of staff on Monday — who in turned reached out to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.“We’ve stood up a tiger team of our [Judge Advocate General’s Corps] officers,” Zukunft said, referring to the legal branch of the Coast Guard.
Presumably, Trump could end the uncertainty by issuing an actual order. My Drezburt partner-in-crime Heather Hurlburt notes, however, that this is made more difficult by the legal questions raised by a sweeping ban.
The transgender case appears to be the rule and not the exception when it comes to Trump’s relationship with the military. Last week Trump said he would not rule out a military option as a response to the crisis in Venezuela. This week the Pentagon publicly and repeatedly insisted that no military option was being prepared because the president had not specifically asked for one (alas, too late to stop the diplomatic damage). Similarly, on North Korea, Trump’s bombastic rhetoric contrasts with the lack of any uptick in the military’s tempo in the region.
To reformulate a beloved line of military dialogue, it would appear that the Pentagon is refusing to honor the checks that Trump’s ego is trying to cash.
I am a civilian, so any hint of military intransigence to orders from the commander in chief makes me itchy. This is true even though, substantively, the military sounds way more sensible than Trump on all of these issues. Institutionally, however, civilian control of the military is a key element of our democracy. Even if the current occupant of the Oval Office is an unpopular blowhard who is beclowning the executive branch, he’s also the elected president. In 2008, when Centcom commander Adm. William “Fox” Fallon pushed back against the Bush administration’s more hostile stance on Iran, he was asked to step down. And rightly so — even Fallon knew that the public insubordination of the sitting president was problematic. A similar dynamic played out with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2010.
Does the Pentagon’s current behavior threaten the nature of the civil-military relationship? I don’t think so.
The problem, as always, is the way Trump manages the executive branch. In each of these cases, the military is not defying a written order. What it is doing is pushing back against presidential rhetoric that lacks foundation in administrative law. Tweets from @realDonaldTrump do not have the effect of a military order. Neither do causal threats made against other countries in the media.
I wholeheartedly agree with my Post colleague Charles Krauthammer when he writes:
The military told the commander in chief to go jump in a lake. Generally speaking, this is not a healthy state of affairs in a nation of civilian control. It does carry a whiff of insubordination. But under a president so uniquely impulsive and chronically irrational, a certain vigilance, even prickliness, on the part of the military is to be welcomed.The brass framed their inaction as a matter of procedure. But the refusal carried with it a reminder of institutional prerogatives. In this case, the military offered resistance to mere whimsy. Next time, it could be resistance to unlawfulness.
Most presidents might engage in rhetorical bluster from time to time, even in areas of foreign policy. To put it bluntly, however, Trump’s persistent reliance on bulls‑‑‑ makes him a unique challenge for the military. If the past few weeks are any guide, however, it is that this president is the weakest commander in chief in modern history.