Military leaders consolidate power in Trump administration – Washington Post

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High-ranking military officials have become an increasingly ubiquitous presence in American political life during Donald Trump’s presidency, repeatedly winning arguments inside the West Wing, publicly contradicting the president and even balking at implementing one of his most controversial policies.

Connected by their faith in order and global norms, these military leaders are rapidly consolidating power throughout the executive branch as they counsel a volatile president. Some establishment figures in both political parties view them as safeguards for the nation in a time of turbulence.

Trump’s elevation of a cadre of current and retired generals marks a striking departure for a country that for generations has positioned civilian leaders above and apart from the military.

“This is the only time in modern presidential history when we’ve had a small number of people from the uniformed world hold this much influence over the chief executive,” said John E. McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA who served in seven administrations. “They are right now playing an extraordinary role.”

In the wake of the deadly racial violence in Charlottesville this month, five of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were hailed as moral authorities for condemning hate in less equivocal terms than the commander in chief did.

On social policy, military leaders have been voices for moderation. The Pentagon declined to immediately act upon Trump’s Twitter announcement that he would ban transgender people from the armed forces, instead awaiting a more formal directive that has yet to arrive.

Inside the White House, meanwhile, generals manage Trump’s hour-by-hour interactions and whisper in his ear — and those whispers, as with the decision this week to expand U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, often become policy.

At the core of Trump’s circle is a seasoned trio of generals with experience as battlefield commanders: White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. The three men have carefully cultivated personal relationships with the president and gained his trust.

Critics of the president welcome their ascendancy, seeing them as a calming force amid the daily chaos of the White House.

“They are standouts of dependability in the face of rash and impulsive conduct,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “There certainly has been a feeling among many of my colleagues that they are a steadying hand on the rudder and provide a sense of consistency and rationality in an otherwise zigzagging White House.”

[‘It’s a hard problem’: Inside Trump’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan]

William S. Cohen, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, said that Trump “came in with virtually no experience in governance, and there’s no coherent strategic philosophy that he holds. There has been a war within the administration, and that has yet to be resolved. . . . The military has tried to impose some coherency and discipline.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, praised Trump’s circle of generals and recommended McMaster and Kelly for their posts. He said the impression in some quarters that military leaders are hawks by definition is misguided.

“What many people in Washington don’t understand is that generals are usually the most reluctant to commit troops to combat because they are the ones who have to write letters home to parents when they have fallen,” Cotton said.

Among some on the right, however, the view is more suspicious. Some Trump supporters, for example, worry about blurring the line between military and civilian leadership, as exemplified by recent headlines at Breitbart News, the conservative website run by Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief White House strategist, who clashed with several military leaders over policy.

Trump’s announcement Monday that he would escalate troop levels in Afghanistan was covered on Breitbart with alarm. Headlines warned of “unlimited war” and “nation-building” led by military leaders without links to Trump’s base.

Commentator and Trump ally Ann Coulter tweeted Monday, “The military-industrial complex wins.”

[‘It’s a coup d’etat’: Antiwar conservatives decry Trump’s Afghanistan surge]

The concerns extend to the political left as well. At ThinkProgress, a liberal website, recent articles have rapped Trump for having a government that benefits “military insiders.” One headline this month declared: “Military figures are taking over Trump’s administration.”

Trump has revered military brass since his youth, when he attended a New York military academy. He holds up generals as exemplars of American leadership and views them as kindred spirits — fellow political outsiders.

“To some degree, Trump is playing president, and I think the whole idea of being able to command a group of warriors is deeply satisfying to him,” McLaughlin said.

Robert M. Hathaway, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said: “It should not surprise us. Candidate Trump suggested he would defer to the people he called ‘my generals’ on a whole host of issues, and they are doing just that.”

Trump idolizes swaggering commanders, such as the cinematic portrayal of George S. Patton Jr., the World War II general. But R. James Woolsey Jr., a former CIA director and undersecretary of the Navy who advised Trump during last year’s campaign, said a better comparison to Kelly, Mattis and McMaster would be George C. Marshall Jr., the Army chief of staff during World War II who went on to serve in President Harry Truman’s Cabinet.

“I think these guys are more Marshall-like than Patton-like,” Woolsey said. “They have distinguished combat records, but they’re the sort of career military men who have the intellectual capability and propensity to deal with civilian matters.”

[Trump loves the sheen of the brass, but generals come with some fixed views]

Kelly, Mattis and McMaster are not the only military figures serving at high levels in the Trump administration. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke each served in various branches of the military, and Trump recently tapped former Army general Mark S. Inch to lead the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Together with other allies in the administration, Kelly, Mattis and McMaster see their roles not merely as executing Trump’s directives but also as guiding him away from moves that they fear could have catastrophic consequences, according to officials familiar with the dynamic.

But if a narrative takes hold that these generals are manipulating the president, Trump could rebel. He chafes at any suggestion that he is a puppet and at the idea of his advisers receiving credit for his decisions. He reacted angrily in February when Time magazine put Bannon on its cover with the headline “The Great Manipulator.”

In his first month as chief of staff, Kelly has kept a low profile, sitting for no major interviews and discouraging aides from self-promotion.

Democratic lawmakers are quick to criticize Trump on just about every issue, but they hold back when it comes to the preponderance of military figures in traditionally civilian positions.

“There might be a temptation to be critical of the president in this context, but I for one am glad they’re there — because they’re thoughtful . . . because they’re lawful and because they’re rational,” Sen. Brian Schatz ­(D-Hawaii) said in an interview. “I feel like the concern about the need to maintain civilian oversight of the military is a totally legitimate one, but that concern should be addressed at a later time. In the meantime, we should be reassured that there are competent professionals there who want to make smart choices.”

That position is shared by many figures in the Republican establishment who worry about Trump’s ideas and temperament.

“The only chance we have of trying to keep this thing from blowing apart is some military discipline,” said Peter Wehner, who served in the three Republican administrations prior to this one and who opposes Trump. “It’s not military rule or a military coup.”

[National security adviser attempts to reconcile Trump’s competing impulses on Afghanistan]

Although Trump mostly has been following the military’s guidance, he easily could turn away from his generals if new problems emerge, according to people close to the president. They described Trump as with the military in spirit but guided more by his transactional instincts. They pointed out that it took weeks for him to go along with a watered-down version of the initial proposal from Mattis and McMaster on additional troops in Afghanistan.

Trump has also had a strained relationship with McMaster for months, in part because of stylistic differences between the two men. The president has little patience for the methodical and consensus-oriented policy process that McMaster employs at the National Security Council, which counts two other generals on the senior staff.

“When you look at the president’s tensions with McMaster, you can see how he could move away from them if things don’t improve in Afghanistan over the next six months,” said a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment. “He’s not giving them some sort of blank check.”

One example is retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who lasted a mere 24 days in his job as national security adviser. Trump fired him in February after Flynn was allegedly not truthful with Vice President Pence about communications with the Russian ambassador during the transition.

“Individuals can be corrupt or incompetent, and that extends at times to people in the military,” Wehner said. “Things can go wrong with anyone.”

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US Navy 7th Fleet commander to be dismissed, official says – CNN

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Donald Trump defends Charlottesville responses, omits reference to ‘many sides’ – CNN

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Generals win key fight over Afghanistan they lost with Obama – Politico

A core group of the nation’s top military commanders spent years confronting the limits of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, watching battlefield gains slip away while American troops pulled out to meet the Obama White House’s deadlines.

Now those officers form the core of President Donald Trump’s national security team, and they’ve achieved a sizable turnaround — by persuading the “America First” commander in chief to send thousands more troops back into Afghanistan, with no set timetable for them to leave.

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The strategy that Trump announced Monday night is a textbook case of how personnel is policy. It’s also a hard-fought policy victory for the current and retired generals who shared the experience of waging the United States’ two bloodiest 21st-century wars — including Defense Secretary James Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, White House chief of staff John Kelly and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford.

Trump left many of the details on his new plan unfilled, and many military experts warn that an infusion of a few thousand more troops, on top of the 8,400 American troops already there, won’t be enough alone to help Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces regain lost ground. But advocates of the new approach have long warned of the dangers of the Obama-era strategy, which included a 30,000-person surge into Afghanistan in 2010 that was accompanied by a preannounced 2011 deadline for withdrawing them.

“Withdrawal, in my mind, means abandoning the people of Afghanistan, abandoning the endeavor we’ve been on for the last decade, and providing Al Qaeda the space within which to plan and conduct operations against the West,” Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2014, when he was trying to slow the reduction in troops.

Dunford later objected when some Obama advisers were pushing for the U.S. to remove all its troops from Afghanistan before the president left office.

Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has witnessed the concrete limitations imposed by withdrawal timetables firsthand. In the fall of 2011, when he was director of operations in Kabul, he had to tell his commanders to hurry up with their last large offensive operations in rugged areas like Kunar and Nuristan — because the U.S. would not have enough troops to mount such missions a year later.

When he returned to Afghanistan last year, Nicholson was surprised to see another practical effect of the drawdown: His one aviation brigade had deployed without many of its mechanics, instead using more expensive, less knowledgeable contractors to stay under the post-withdrawal troop cap.

The generals’ experiences informed the advice they offered Trump during the hard months of debating the new strategy, said one former top commander in the Middle East who is still in close contact with his fellow career officers.

“Telling the enemy when we would start to draw down also was seen by those in uniform as counterproductive if you’re in a contest of wills with an enemy who notes that we might have the watches, but they have the time,” the former commander said.

The refusal to set a date certain for withdrawal is a “core pillar” of the new policy, Trump said in his prime-time announcement Monday.

“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” he said.

Looming large over the deliberations was the last time the United States launched a so-called surge of forces in Afghanistan, when President Barack Obama approved two waves of roughly 30,000 troops each in 2009 and 2010.

The first wave, which followed Obama’s complaints that President George W. Bush had failed to commit enough troops there, had an open-ended timeline. But for the second wave, Obama announced that the U.S. would start withdrawing them in July 2011.

Bush had originally taken the opposite approach in Iraq, resisting fierce political pressure after the 2003 invasion to set a timetable for withdrawal, even as the war grew more violent and popular support waned. Instead, Bush said, the progress of the war itself would dictate when and how fast the U.S. could pull out.

“As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraq without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists,” Bush said at the U.S. Naval Academy in late 2005. “These decisions about troop levels will be driven by the conditions on the ground in Iraq and the good judgment of our commanders — not by artificial timetables set by politicians in Washington.”

Bush, who also launched an open-ended surge of U.S. forces into Iraq in 2007, ultimately agreed to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 — a deadline that Obama later stuck to. That decision, however, was based on a dramatic improvement in the security situation and an expansion of Iraqi security forces.

The key advisers who pressed Trump to adopt a new strategy had held key roles in carrying out the old one.

Mattis, now a retired Marine general, was head of U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for both Iraq and Afghanistan, from 2010 into 2013. That coincided with the Obama-era Afghan surge and the beginning of Obama’s announced drawdown.

During his 2010 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis had highlighted the military’s concerns about explicitly spelling out when and how quickly the U.S. would pull out the troops and the importance of basing troop levels on the situation on the ground.

“In this context, I understand the July 2011 date that the president announced at West Point last December as the beginning of a transition of security tasks to the Afghans, based on conditions on the ground at that time, which will allow U.S. troops to begin returning home,” Mattis said in his cautious response.

Six months later, as the July deadline loomed, Mattis told a London think tank that he thought the deadline might embolden the Taliban “to some degree.”

Sitting across from Mattis in this summer’s White House deliberations over Afghanistan was McMaster, the three-star Army general who serves as Trump’s national security adviser. McMaster, one of the key forces in convincing the president that withdrawing from Afghanistan would be far too risky, had headed an anti-corruption task force in Kabul during Obama’s Afghan surge.

Dunford, meanwhile, had been the top commander in Afghanistan in 2013 and 2014, where he witnessed the transition from the last of the surge combat operations to the current mission of advising the Afghan security forces.

Also involved in the Afghanistan policy review was Kelly, another retired Marine general, whose son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 at the height of Obama’s surge.

Hawks who have criticized the recent U.S. strategy in Afghanistan hailed Trump’s insistence that he will not repeat Obama’s mistake by telegraphing the future. Those include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Fred Kagan, a military strategist at the American Enterprise Institute who has advised U.S. military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that itis “extremely important” to avoid telegraphing when troops might leave.

“The shift from time-based to conditions-based decision-making is key,” he said. “There’s no other way to fight a war with any expectation of success.”

On the other hand, Trump didn’t define what success would look like. And it is not clear what conditions would allow the U.S. to withdraw.

“This is not a plan,” said Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a Marine veteran and Democratic member of the Armed Services Committee. “The president has announced that he is committing to an open-ended war effort in Afghanistan without clearly explaining to the American people or the service members he is sending into harm’s way what he wants and how he intends to accomplish his goals.”

Jason Dempsey, a former Army officer who was an adviser to the Afghans, disagreed with the notion that Obama’s withdrawal deadlines were to blame for the war setbacks.

“The go-to excuse for a lot of advocates of the status quo has been: Afghanistan would’ve turned out great if not for Obama’s timeline,” Dempsey said. “But it is incumbent on those people to explain how they would have gotten the Afghans in the fight in a sustainable way, and they don’t answer that.

“If I was an Afghan listening to Trump say how we’re going to crush the enemy, and oh, we also want the Afghan government to meet certain standards, but without a timeline, I’d just hear, ‘OK, the Americans are here forever,'” he added.

But whether Trump, who during the presidential campaign promised to withdraw from Afghanistan, will be willing to stick with such an open-ended commitment is also considered a very open question.

“Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check,” he said Monday night. “The government of Afghanistan must carry their share of the military, political and economic burden. The American people expect to see real reforms, real progress and real results. Our patience is not unlimited.”

Max Boot, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who was in Afghanistan earlier this week, said avoiding setting a timeline for the new strategy to work “is important, but I worry that this message of resolution is contradicted by Trump’s reluctance to approve this strategy and his barely suppressed desire to withdraw.”

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NYT: McConnell, Trump Not Speaking, Locked in ‘Cold War’ – Newsmax

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are locked in a “Cold War” battle that is putting the Republican agenda in peril,The New York Times reported.

Trump has publicly and privately berated McConnell over his failure to rally his Republican members — who hold a slim 52-48 majority — into support of a repeal and replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act. And McConnell has expressed concerns Trump — a newcomer to politics — is not educating himself on how governing works.

According to the Times, the two men have not spoken to each other in weeks. Before that, many of their conversations were punctuated with angry words. At one point, they even got into a “profane shouting match” over the phone when the president called to berate McConnell over the failure of the Obamacare repeal effort.

In addition to Trump’s anger over the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, the president also feels McConnell has not done enough to stem the probes into possible connections between his campaign and Russian officials, the newspaper reported.

For his part, McConnell is angry over Trump’s threats to Senate Republicans who refuse to give him their complete backing and his criticism of Senate rules.

The majority leader also has expressed doubts whether Trump will be able to lead the party heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Some of McConnell’s concerns stem from Trump’s statements in the wake of the Charlottesville protests saying there were good and bad people on both sides.

But while McConnell has the backing of his Senate colleagues, he is in trouble at home, holding only an 18 percent approval rating among his Kentucky constituents, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey. Kentuckians gave Trump a 60 percent approval rating in the same poll.

And while Trump’s national poll numbers are nearly half that, he still maintains strong backing of his base.

The rift between the two leaders most threatens the GOP agenda, the Times noted, pointing to deadlines on raising the debt limit and a rewrite of the tax code as Congress gavels back into a regular working session next month.

Trump’s support of a Republican challenger to Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and his inspiration for a similar challenge to Nevada Sen. Dean Heller also could cause issues. Should those challenges cause both Senate seats to fall into Democratic hands, the majority would be lost, with no wiggle room to lose GOP votes.

Most Senate Republicans are sticking together against Trump attacks, with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, often the victim of the president’s ire, comparing it to the NATO alliance.

“When it comes to the Senate, there’s an Article 5 understanding: An attack against one is an attack against all,” Graham told the Times.

But GOP strategist and Trump ally Roger Stone called for a step-up in the attacks.

“The president should start bumping off incumbent Republican members of Congress in primaries,” Stone said. “If he did that, Mitch McConnell and [House Speaker] Paul Ryan would wet their pants and the rest of the Republicans would get in line.”

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