One of the first signs of real trouble came six months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The Republican was headlining an event commissioning the USS Gerald Ford, and Trump departed from his prepared text to suggest his audience, which included active-duty servicemen and women, should do him a favor.
Referring to his budget request for increased military spending, the president said at the time, “I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it.” Trump went on to suggest they should also lobby Congress in support of the Republican health care plan.
It was immediately problematic: sitting presidents aren’t supposed to order uniformed officers to help lobby Congress in support of a political agenda. Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser in the Obama White House called Trump’s comments “a huge deal,” adding that Trump’s appeal “violates most fundamental norms separating military and politics.”
But in this White House, those lines don’t much exist. It’s against this backdrop that the Washington Post reported on the Pentagon’s reminder on the subject.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had a message for the White House: Politics and the military don’t mix.
Shanahan and Navy officials have faced intense scrutiny over a White House request to hide the USS John S. McCain warship during President Trump’s visit to Japan last month — a moment, among others, some defense officials and analysts have said is a sign of decay in the civilian-military relationship, which has been traditionally immune to partisan rancor.
Amid the backlash, Shanahan directed his chief of staff to tell the White House not to put the military in political situations, Shanahan’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, told The Washington Post.
The Associated Press added that Shanahan is “considering a clearer directive to the military about avoiding political situations.” The goal, the report said, would be to “ensure there is less ambiguity” in matters such as these.
It’s no small development that this would even be considered necessary.
But it also may not be enough. Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney argued yesterday that it was perfectly “reasonable” for Team Trump to direct the Navy to move the USS McCain to protect the president’s delicate feelings. Mulvaney seemed to dismiss the idea of taking any kind of corrective actions as absurd.
If Shanahan is serious about protecting the line separating the military from politics, I’m glad. At the risk of sounding overdramatic, this can probably be described as one of those death-of-the-republic kind of issues: the United States military simply cannot be aligned with any one party, political leader, or political agenda. Period. Full stop.
But given the seriousness of the circumstances, and the indifference emanating from Trump’s West Wing, the acting Pentagon chief may need to do more than just send a curt note to the White House, asking for greater respect for the American system.
Postscript: As things stand, Shanahan, who’s never served in the military, is an acting Defense secretary. If he were to take a firm stand against White House politicization efforts, it’s very easy to imagine Donald Trump withdrawing his nomination to the Senate and looking for someone who’d be more eager to go along with the president’s agenda.