The president’s comments Monday prompted objections from the leadership of NATO and the German government. Trump’s ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, reacted by saying this will “take some time,” and “I don’t think anything has been set in concrete yet.”
One reason it will take time is that, according to multiple senior administration officials, the Pentagon won’t submit the options for implementing the withdrawal that Trump wants. Trump’s request for such plans was communicated to the Pentagon in a classified Cabinet memo signed by national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and initialed by Trump, officials said. But the Pentagon is treating Trump’s demand as if doesn’t carry the authority of an actual presidential decision. The generals are effectively ignoring it.
“Whatever you think about the specifics of withdrawing troops from Germany, there’s nothing heroic about deliberately ignoring the president’s expressed intentions,” a senior administration official said.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper conducted his own review of U.S. troop deployments in Europe, but the White House thought it too cautious. A similar dynamic is playing out on Afghanistan, where the White House wants to withdraw thousands more of the remaining U.S. combat troops — if not all of them — before the election, to fulfill one of Trump’s campaign promises. The Pentagon is stalling on providing options to achieve that goal, the official said.
The White House believes Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are using bureaucratic intransigence to thwart Trump’s stated wishes. This is adding to their frustration about Esper and Milley publicly breaking from Trump on other issues.
“If they really find the president’s desire to reorient our forces so repellent that they can’t stomach it, they should do the honorable thing and resign,” the senior administration official said.
The White House does have some ideas for where the troops in Germany should go. I obtained a June 12 letter from O’Brien, responding to a group of GOP lawmakers who publicly objected to Trump’s Germany withdrawal plans. The lawmakers said the move would be a benefit to Russia at the expense of U.S. national security.
“President Trump agrees with you that the threats posed by Russia have not lessened,” O’Brien wrote. “Both our allies and our adversaries around the world should not view the prudent reassessment of forward basing decisions in Germany as a diminishing of the United States commitment to NATO or a signaling a lack of vigilance about our adversaries.”
Many of the troops in Germany will eventually be reassigned to other nations in Europe, according to O’Brien. Some will be deployed to Asia. Others will return to the homeland. But, he cautioned, the exact plans “remain under development at the Pentagon,” a reference to the fact they haven’t sent the plans over to the White House yet.
It’s not new in Washington for bureaucracies to stall policies they don’t like coming from the White House. But these moves by Esper and Milley — two officials chosen by Trump — formed the background for the open break between the White House and Pentagon that erupted over how to handle the protests in Washington earlier this month.
After chemical gas was used to clear protesters near the White House, Esper publicly broke from the White House to say he opposed invoking the Insurrection Act to use active-duty troops on U.S. soil. Milley publicly apologized for participating in the photo op with Trump outside St. John’s Episcopal Church after Lafayette Square was aggressively cleared of peaceful protesters. It was soon reported that Milley had angrily opposed using active-duty troops in an Oval Office meeting with Trump and even considered resigning over it.
To be sure, the use of active military forces against mostly peaceful U.S. protesters would have been a gross overreaction. Esper and Milley may have honestly seen themselves as defending the institution of the military from undue politicization. But by publicly breaking with the commander in chief but not resigning, they are participating in politics of their own.
It would be easy to say that, because Trump is erratic or because we disagree with his policies, our Pentagon and military leaders should be celebrated for going their own way. But what happens when the next president, maybe a Democrat, wants to impose a policy on the military that its leadership doesn’t like? Civilian control over the military is also a norm we might miss when it’s gone.