“What message does that send to the troops?” Spencer said. “That you can get away with things. We have to have good order and discipline. It’s the backbone of what we do.”
You can get away with things. That might sound deeply troubling to many, but is there any doubt that this is Trump’s intended message? If Trump decides you’re one of his people, you can get away with things.
Trump, who ordered Spencer to refrain from taking away Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher’s Trident pin identifying him as a SEAL, claims he was protecting “our war fighters.”
“A war fighter is a profession of arms,” Spencer responded on CBS News. “And a profession of arms has standards that they have to be held to — and that they hold themselves to.”
It’s eerie how perfectly these Spencer quotes overlap, in reverse, on top of the message that Trump has blared about his whole presidency from Day One. In every conceivable way, Trump has proclaimed that he and his loyalists will not be held to any standards of any kind in public service — and will not hold themselves to any such standards, either.
In a narrow sense, Trump is quite explicitly declaring that the standards for “our war fighters” should be far more lax than they are. This is exactly what makes his decision so destructive.
That’s what retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling told CNN, noting this will be the “gift that keeps on giving” for future fighters facing discipline, because they’ll say, “you’re taking my Trident, but you let Gallagher get away with it?” As an excellent Deep State Radio podcast details, Trump has the authority to do this, but such a corrupt application of it is the stuff that institutional degradation is made of.
Trump’s larger message
Beyond this, it’s plainly obvious that Trump — whether by instinct or design — is sending a larger message here, about his own ability and willingness to render rules, standards and, above all, accountability moot through nothing more than the arbitrary application of his own power to do so.
In so doing, Trump would be proclaiming to his supporters that these men are his people, or their people, and that he used his power to absolve them from accepted standards and procedures designed to impose accountability for severe, murderous misconduct.
It’s often said Trump is making himself into the “ultimate arbiter of military justice.” But this gets it subtly wrong: There is no chance Trump is operating out of any meaningful sense of justice that would dictate to him that these men were treated unfairly.
Instead, the whole point is to declare the power to obliterate obligation to any meaningful codes or standards — and to do so arbitrarily, and not on the basis of any set of values, on behalf of whomever has been designated as one of his people.
Similarly, Trump believes it will thrill his base to campaign with absolved war criminals. But why would this be the case? Because Trump has, by pardoning them, declared them his people, thus absolving them of any obligation to codes of battlefield conduct, which — in circular fashion — will itself make it thrilling to his rally crowds that he pardoned them.
When Trump fixer Roger Stone was convicted of lying to Congress to mask Trump’s efforts to benefit from 2016 Russian electoral sabotage, Trump raged that this was unjust. This was not because Stone didn’t do what he’d been accused of, but rather because the justice system wasn’t imposing a similar penalty on his political enemies who hadn’t committed any crimes:
Trump wants to erode public faith that rules and laws can be rooted in genuinely aspired-to values and to sow doubt that the justice system is capable of parceling out actual justice. These things can then be reduced to nothing more than a tool to advance the interests of your own side.
Trump continues to refuse to release his tax returns, flouting basic obligations of transparency to the public going back decades. Though he backed off, Trump’s effort to host the Group of Seven at his Doral resort was all about rubbing our faces in his ability to profiteer off the presidency with impunity.
Trump blithely declares he’d happily benefit from more foreign interference in 2020. He cheerfully proclaims it’s entirely legitimate to use his office to extort a foreign leader to solicit more such interference. Multiple members of Trump’s Cabinet helped to carry out this plot — and are now giving the middle finger to congressional oversight to help him escape accountability for it.
For Trump, the power to act with impunity — and to decree it for whomever he chooses, on whatever basis he pleases — is the point. Spencer’s warning is only the latest to speak to this deeper truth.