No president in recent history has worked harder to publicly associate himself with the U.S. military than Donald Trump.
He has filled his Cabinet with retired generals, met behind the scenes with the top brass at a pace that far exceeds that of his predecessor, and on Thursday will drop a defense budget that promises a big spending boost for the Pentagon.
But the president’s embrace has provoked equal parts excitement and unease among officers still struggling to make sense of an unconventional commander in chief whose “America First” approach to governance seems built in part on shows of strength and military power.
“You want those in uniform . . . to trust the president,” one retired four-star officer said. “They don’t have to like him, but they have to trust him. Right now, there is an uncertain fabric of trust between them.”
The uncertainty extends to the president’s over-the-top praise. Do his frequent encomiums reflect a respect for the military’s discipline and expertise, or could he be using the uniform as a backdrop to bolster his popularity?
Military commanders have welcomed Trump’s moves to delegate decisions to commanders, but unfilled senior civilian positions and turmoil in the White House have led some officers to ask whether the latitude is a sign of trust or a product of chaos at the highest levels of government.
Even the president’s proposed $54 billion buildup has provoked some questions. “We’re going to load it up. You’re going to get a lot of equipment,” Trump said of his military buildup, which seems designed more as a show of strength than an effort to deal with any pressing threat.
Concern in the ranks is not unusual in the early days of a new administration. President Bill Clinton roiled the military with a proposal to allow openly gay troops to serve. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s brusque and, at times, dismissive leadership style alienated generals in the early days of George W. Bush’s presidency.
But in this case, both the enthusiasm and reticence are more pronounced — a reflection of Trump’s heavy military focus and his willingness to flout norms and rules that are intended to keep the military far from politics. More than one dozen senior officers at bases in the United States, the Pentagon and overseas spoke on condition of anonymity to describe their early impressions of the new administration.
In his first few weeks in office, Trump addressed the troops at U.S. Special Operations Command, where in a striking break with protocol, he praised the military for backing him in the election.
“I saw those numbers,” he said. “You like me, and I like you.”
More recently, he boasted that “my generals are the most respected we’ve had in decades” and spotlighted the grieving widow of a Navy SEAL who was killed on a mission that Trump ordered in Yemen. Less than 48 hours later, he boarded an aircraft carrier, where he promised a big boost in military spending.
The military has welcomed Trump’s promise to increase military spending on new fighter jets, more tanks and a 350-ship Navy that will dwarf the current fleet of fewer than 300 ships.
They have also enjoyed Trump’s increased attention, which some officers view as a corrective to the approach of President Barack Obama, who was described by Robert M. Gates, his defense secretary, as “deeply suspicious” of the brass. “Obama considered time spent with the generals and admirals an obligation,” Gates wrote in his memoir “Duty.”
Senior military officers describe Trump, who attended a military high school but used a series of draft deferments to avoid service during the Vietnam War, as respectful and trusting of their judgment. Unlike the bombastic figure on the campaign trail, they say he listens and asks questions. And enjoys being around them.
In his first month in office, Trump has met with his four-star service chiefs at least three times to discuss the needs of the force, said a senior military officer. The senior service chiefs rarely saw Obama during his last year in office, the officer said.
But the attention also comes with an undercurrent of disquiet. Trump’s “America First” doctrine and transactional approach to working with allies has unnerved some senior military officers who view the U.S. military as a relatively selfless guarantor of global security. “If the president views the U.S. as a chump paying more than its fair share, how do I communicate what I am doing in terms of building the capacity to the White House?” one four-star regional commander recently asked his fellow officers.
Recently, a group of 120 former generals and admirals warned against Trump’s plan to slash spending on foreign aid, arguing that efforts to promote better governance help prevent conflicts that require U.S. military intervention.
There is also a broader worry that a relatively unpopular president with few fixed national security beliefs has latched onto the military as a means of boosting his standing.
“He’s trading on the military’s reputation as the country’s most trusted institution,” said one Army colonel, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly about the commander in chief. “It’s capital that he didn’t build.”
Only a few months ago on the campaign trail, Trump described the generals as “reduced to rubble.” Now he is full of praise for them. His sudden swing in opinion left another midlevel Army officer wondering what would happen if a mission went bad or a few generals resigned in protest.
“He could turn on us as well,” said the officer, who has served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Already since taking office, Trump has appeared to distance himself from military operations gone awry. After the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens in a Jan. 29 operation he approved, Trump said it was his generals who “lost Ryan.”
Some officers’ concerns turn more on bureaucratic upheaval and its impact on military operations. For much of the past eight years, the Obama administration centralized decision-making in the White House. Even relatively minor battlefield moves — such as the transfer of three Apache attack helicopters from Iraq to Syria — generated long debates and required presidential approval.
In a few short weeks in office, Trump has upended those processes. “The days of nano-management are gone,” one senior White House official said.
In Yemen, the military is now operating with a temporary authority to conduct intensified airstrikes without going through a more stringent White House approval process. The change has allowed U.S. forces to accelerate the pace of on-the-ground operations. Military commanders are working on plans to step up raids against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“More freedom within guidelines I’m sure will be welcome,” said James Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general.
But many of those same commanders also worry about the absence of clear direction and support from Washington. In some cases, the lack of a clear administration policy — on issues including the conflicts in Syria and Yemen — has added a new element of difficulty for commanders as they draw up plans for operations.
Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, complained last month about the “unbelievable turmoil” within senior levels of government. “I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war,” he said at a conference.
Many positions remain unfilled at the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies as part of a larger tug of war between new Cabinet members and the White House. At the White House, national security adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after less than a month in office.
The military has been spared some of that tumult. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a former commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, has deep experience in the inner workings of the U.S. government.
“The Pentagon is a comparative oasis,” said Peter Feaver, a former Bush administration official and now a professor at Duke University.
On issues about which the military cares strongly — such as rejecting the use of torture and supporting the NATO alliance — Trump has for now embraced Mattis’s views.
Despite those victories, many military officers remain unnerved by the president’s loose and, at times, improvisational style on matters of potential war and peace.
One retired general who has worked with Trump said the president’s new national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Cabinet secretaries will have to play a greater role in shaping policy to reflect the president’s instincts, rather than adopting a literal reading of his words. “If the power shifts away from the White House and to the Cabinet secretaries, that’s the right approach,” the retired officer said.
For now, the biggest challenge facing senior military officers may simply be staying above the political fray at a time when the country has hardly been more divided.
Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy and a finalist to run the White House National Security Council after Flynn’s departure, dealt with that problem recently when someone snapped a picture of a “Make America Great Again” hat in the cloakroom of his house and posted it online. Caslen said the hat was left behind by a guest at his home. He said that he acquired a second Trump hat at a 2015 golf tournament and that his son sent him a third one and asked him to have Vice President Pence sign it when he visited the academy.
In an interview, Caslen said the hats should not be read as an endorsement by him of any politician or party.
“The last thing you can call me is a Trump supporter,” he said. “As an Army officer, I am apolitical. That’s just the way I am. If you claim that I am in support for one political party or another, that is the exact opposite of what I am.”