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Trump delegates too much of his Commander-in-Chief authority

Trump used to say he knew more than U.S. generals. So why is he now delegating his Commander-in-Chief powers to the Pentagon?
Image: Trump Hosts Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi At The White House
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: (AFP OUT) US President Donald Trump flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (R) looks...

The vast majority of the top positions in the Pentagon are still empty, and McClatchy reported last week that in several cases, it's because the White House refuses to accept Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis' personnel recommendations. Trump World, the article said, has "blacklisted national security and defense leaders who publicly disagreed with Trump during the 2016 campaign."

But while the Secretary of Defense lacks the authority to pick his team, he's apparently gained the authority to establish troop-deployment levels in Afghanistan. The Washington Post reported:

President Trump has given the Pentagon new authority to decide the troop levels in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Tuesday. The move could lead to a deployment of thousands more troops as commanders decide the way forward in the 15-year-old war. [...]With the new authority, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis could authorize deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan, something commanders on the ground have been requesting for months.

Mattis issued a written statement yesterday, confirming that Trump has "directed the Department of Defense to set troop levels in Afghanistan."

At first blush, that may not sound especially surprising, but this is a power the president is supposed to hold onto, not delegate away. Military leaders have a mission in Afghanistan, but the White House has a responsibility to consider the Pentagon's recommendations in a larger policy context.

This president, however, apparently doesn't want to -- and it's a dynamic that keeps coming up.

As we discussed several weeks ago, Trump has also told Mattis to take the lead on setting troop levels in Iraq and Syria, relaxing rules intended to prevent civilian casualties in Somalia, and deploying rarely used weapons -- such as the MOAB ("Mother Of All Bombs") -- without presidential input or approval.

In other words, Trump may be the Commander in Chief of the military, but he's taking a hands-off approach when it comes to leading the armed forces, delegating much of his authority to the Defense Department. The L.A. Times added last week that the president hasn't met or even spoken to the top U.S. military commander in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Circling back to our coverage from May, Candidate Trump, despite having no experience or background in military service at any level, used to boast to voters about his expertise in matters of national security – remember when the Republican amateur boasted he knew more about ISIS than American generals do? – but as a president, he appears to be effectively taking a pass.

To be sure, every president needs to strike a balance. Ultimately, the military is required to follow a president’s orders, but it’s unrealistic to think any modern Commander-in-Chief, especially during ongoing conflicts, would personally consider and approve literally every individual mission and strike. Some delegation is a practical necessity.

But with Trump, we appear to have a president who’s content to leave key decision-making authority to others.

I’m reminded of Trump’s reaction to the disastrous raid in Yemen, shortly after the president took office, which left Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens and many civilians dead. Asked about what transpired, Trump made comments in a Fox News interview that were almost hard to believe.

“Well this was a mission that was started before I got here,” the president said. “This was something that was, you know, just, they wanted to do. They came to see me they explained what they wanted to do, the generals ... and they lost Ryan.”

This was obviously an outrageous example of a president trying to avoid responsibility for a mission gone wrong, but in retrospect, I wonder if Trump was being literal. From his perspective, if he handed over decision-making authorities to military leaders, and Trump effectively removed himself from the process, then from the president’s vantage point, “they” are to blame for what went wrong, not him.

A variety of words come to mind, but “leadership” isn’t one of them.