Sometimes, through family, one sees another world. The graduation at West Point was thirty years ago. The highly-decorated but oddly bookish Colonel in the family just retired, from another world that few see – the world of duty and honor and country and thinking things through with both honesty and empathy. This was not the world of John Wayne or Rambo. This was the world of quiet good men, and good women, trying to do the right thing, and doing just that. And they didn’t talk about much at all.
And then there’s Donald Trump. He doesn’t know that world. But that world knows him. Frank Bruni explains that:
The first time I saw President Trump referred to as “Cadet Bone Spurs” I laughed, the second time I smiled and the third time I cringed. It’s an apt slur, but it lumps him together with all the other politicians whose military huzzahs contradict their personal histories and whose insult to our men and women in uniform can be reduced to dodging the draft.
Trump’s twisted and utterly transactional relationship with America’s armed forces is a bigger insult than that. For all his lip service to military service, his actions reveal a crude take on those who perform it.
And they have led now to a remarkable and remarkably public reappraisal – even repudiation – of him by people in the armed services, their leaders and veterans.
They were reluctant but this was necessary, and Bruni runs down that list so far:
Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued an extraordinary apology for his participation in that awful presidential photo op made possible by the use of tear gas against peaceful protesters. But as Helene Cooper noted in a story in the New York Times, that’s just one example of an intensifying friction between the president and military leaders. Many of them don’t share his opposition to renaming bases that honor Confederate officers and disagreed with his push to have armed forces quell demonstrations.
“Trump’s Actions Rattle the Military World” was the headline on a separate story in the Times by Jennifer Steinhauer. Her conversations with members of the military, their families and veterans made clear that they might not back Trump to the extent that they did in 2016.
Then there are the generals and admirals, silent by custom but silent no more. What we’ve seen and heard from them over the past two weeks is unprecedented in my adult lifetime, a jolting departure from their norm of mutely supporting a sitting president, no matter their differences with him.
Trump has been denounced by Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis and reprimanded by Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, both of whom held top jobs in his administration. “I think we need to look harder at who we elect,” Kelly said in an interview for the online platform SALT Talks.
Trump has been upbraided by Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, each of whom served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush. “I’m glad I don’t have to advise this president,” Myers said in a CNN interview.
That seems new but this had been building for a few years:
Nearly two years and a hell of a lot of golf passed between his inauguration and the first time he could rouse himself to visit troops in a foreign combat zone.
During an earlier trip abroad in late 2018, he abruptly canceled his participation in an event at an American cemetery and World War I memorial in France when rain meant that he’d have to drive instead of taking a quicker helicopter flight.
The following year, again in France, he used the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy as the backdrop for an interview in which he called Robert Mueller “a fool” and Nancy Pelosi “a disaster.” Everything to Trump is show business, and the graves of warriors are fitting props for a tirade on Fox News.
And then this outraged every military officer any of us knew:
Last November he cleared three members of the armed forces who had been accused or convicted of war crimes. He did so against the wishes of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who worried about the military code of justice being undermined.
So this seems about right:
Code? Justice? Trump thinks and speaks in the language of wins, losses, brawn and bloodshed. He only pantomimes principle. His supposed reluctance to send troops into foreign lands gave way over recent weeks to his readiness to have them occupy our own land and engage in combat with their fellow Americans.
That he didn’t expect them to push back proves how little he understands them and how far short he sells them. They bring more than muscle to what they do. They bring heart, soul and intellect.
Trump brings uninformed impulse, so more will speak out. The Atlantic’s David Freed reports this:
The gnawing in retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez’s gut began in June 2015, when Donald Trump rode a golden escalator to the basement of Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president. In his impromptu speech, Trump likened Mexican immigrants to a plague. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume,” the candidate offered almost as an afterthought, “are good people.”
“I immediately flashed back to my first battalion commander telling me I was not good enough to compete with West Pointers because of who I was and where I came from,” says Sanchez, a Mexican American raised poor in south Texas, and who ultimately would serve as commander of all coalition ground forces in Iraq.
And then it happened again:
Over the next five years, as Trump made the transition from Republican nominee to president, Sanchez’s disgust at Trump’s actions only grew. There was Trump’s attack on Muslim Gold Star parents. His contention that a judge presiding over a lawsuit against him could not be impartial because the judge was Hispanic. His travel ban on Muslims. His refusal to condemn white supremacists following racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. His separating Latino families at the southern border and his efforts to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and deport so-called Dreamers. His Cinco de Mayo celebration involving a photograph of himself eating a taco bowl, grinning.
Through all of this, Sanchez held his fire. Then came June 1 of this year. Demonstrators gathered peacefully on Lafayette Square outside the White House to protest the police killing of a black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, were driven off by federal authorities wielding batons and pepper spray so that Trump, a self-proclaimed “law-and-order president,” could pose for pictures outside a nearby church while clutching a Bible.
For Sanchez, 69, it was the last straw. He had to speak out.
“I believe the president is a racist,” he told me. “The statement has to be made.”
For a former officer of Sanchez’s rank to openly brand the president a bigot – as he does in a 1,322-word statement on racial injustice – is unprecedented, military historians say.
Now it’s not, not this year. It’s a variation of what all the other retired military leaders had been saying. Trump is a disaster. He could get us all killed. He could end democracy here. Sanchez just pointed out that Trump was a bigot too – a pure racist. He just adds one more item to the list – this president appears to care little for the welfare of Americans who are not white.
Trump is going to have to do something about these military people who just don’t respect his awesomeness, and a hint of how he’ll fight back was offered by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker in their January 2020 book A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America which opens with this:
There is no more sacred room for military officers than 2E924 of the Pentagon, a windowless and secure vault where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet regularly to wrestle with classified matters. Its more common name is “the Tank.” The Tank resembles a small corporate boardroom, with a gleaming golden oak table, leather swivel armchairs and other mid-century stylings. Inside its walls, flag officers observe a reverence and decorum for the wrenching decisions that have been made there.
Hanging prominently on one of the walls is The Peacemakers, a painting that depicts an 1865 Civil War strategy session with President Abraham Lincoln and his three service chiefs – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter.
Some of us have seen that room, when empty. It’s quite impressive. But this time it wasn’t empty:
One hundred fifty-two years after Lincoln hatched plans to preserve the Union, President Trump’s advisers staged an intervention inside the Tank to try to preserve the world order.
By that point, six months into his administration, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had grown alarmed by gaping holes in Trump’s knowledge of history, especially the key alliances forged following World War II. Trump had dismissed allies as worthless, cozied up to authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere, and advocated withdrawing troops from strategic outposts and active theaters alike.
Trump organized his unorthodox worldview under the simplistic banner of “America First,” but Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn feared his proposals were rash, barely considered, and a danger to America’s superpower standing. They also felt that many of Trump’s impulsive ideas stemmed from his lack of familiarity with U.S. history and, even, where countries were located. To have a useful discussion with him, the trio agreed, they had to create a basic knowledge, a shared language.
So on July 20, 2017, Mattis invited Trump to the Tank for what he, Tillerson, and Cohn had carefully organized as a tailored tutorial.
That was a bad move. They had their world and he had his:
Trump appeared peeved by the schoolhouse vibe but also allergic to the dynamic of his advisers talking at him. His ricocheting attention span led him to repeatedly interrupt the lesson. He heard an adviser say a word or phrase and then seized on that to interject with his take. For instance, the word “base” prompted him to launch in to say how “crazy” and “stupid” it was to pay for bases in some countries.
Trump’s first complaint was to repeat what he had vented about to his national security adviser months earlier: South Korea should pay for a $10 billion missile defense system that the United States built for it. The system was designed to shoot down any short- and medium-range ballistic missiles from North Korea to protect South Korea and American troops stationed there. But Trump argued that the South Koreans should pay for it, proposing that the administration pull U.S. troops out of the region or bill the South Koreans for their protection.
“We should charge them rent,” Trump said of South Korea. “We should make them pay for our soldiers. We should make money off of everything.”
Trump proceeded to explain that NATO, too, was worthless. U.S. generals were letting the allied member countries get away with murder, he said, and they owed the United States a lot of money after not living up to their promise of paying their dues.
They tried to explain to him that national security wasn’t about making money. He screamed back at them that yes it damned well was. Why weren’t we making money? And there was this:
Trump erupted to revive another frequent complaint: the war in Afghanistan, which was now America’s longest war. He demanded an explanation for why the United States hadn’t won in Afghanistan yet, now 16 years after the nation began fighting there in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Trump unleashed his disdain, calling Afghanistan a “loser war.” That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were sworn to obey their commander in chief’s commands, and here he was calling the war they had been fighting a loser war.
“You’re all losers,” Trump said. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”
Trump by now was in one of his rages. He was so angry that he wasn’t taking many breaths. All morning, he had been coarse and cavalier, but the next several things he bellowed went beyond that description. They stunned nearly everyone in the room, and some vowed that they would never repeat them. Indeed, they have not been reported until now.
“I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump told the assembled brass.
Addressing the room, the commander in chief barked, “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
And then they knew what they were dealing with. When word of the meeting leaked out, all active-duty officers knew, and then all retired officers knew. They heard him loud and clear. Everyone else was a dope and a baby and a coward too, and a real loser – because everyone else was weak. They think they know things. They think about things. He sneered at all that. So, he doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t think about things. So what? He’s strong. Everyone else is a weak fool.
But now there was another test, just this evening:
The US Secret Service on Monday evening told members of the White House press corps to immediately leave the White House grounds, a highly unusual decision that did not immediately come with an explanation.
The decision came during an ongoing demonstration in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House where protesters were trying to bring down a statue of former President Andrew Jackson that stands in the middle of the park. Those protesters were eventually pushed back out of the park by police.
Protesters spray painted “BHAZ” on the pillars of St. John’s Episcopal Church, which sits across the street from Lafayette Square. The acronym stands for “Black House Autonomous Zone,” an apparent reference to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) in Seattle where protesters have taken over a six-square-block area of the city and kept out police in order to set up their own self-governing space.
What will he do? First, he’ll remove the press. They won’t be reporting on anything, and he’ll be strong:
President Donald Trump tweeted late Monday evening, “Numerous people arrested in D.C. for the disgraceful vandalism, in Lafayette Park, of the magnificent Statue of Andrew Jackson, in addition to the exterior defacing of St. John’s Church across the street,” adding: “10 years in prison under the Veteran’s Memorial Preservation Act. Beware!”
US Interior Secretary David Bernhardt echoed that message, tweeting, “I just left Lafayette Square where another so called ‘peaceful protest’ led to destruction tonight.”
“Law and order will prevail,” he said, “and justice will be served.”
It will? Those are just words:
Last month, Trump was briefly taken to the underground bunker for a period of time as protesters gathered outside the White House, according to a White House official and a law enforcement source. The President was there for a little under an hour before being brought upstairs.
A law enforcement source and another source familiar with the matter told CNN that first lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, were also taken to the bunker.
Following that episode, the White House cautioned staffers who must go to work to hide their passes until they reach a Secret Service entry point and to hide them as they leave, according to an email which was viewed by CNN.
A few days after, Trump declared himself “your President of law and order” as peaceful protesters just outside the White House gates were dispersed with gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets, after which he walked to a nearby church for a photo opportunity.
He remained at the boarded-up building, brandishing a Bible for the cameras, for only a matter of minutes before returning to the White House.
He looked like a weak man desperately hoping that someone would see him as awesomely strong. He was trying too hard, and then, in a flash, he disappeared again.
This machine isn’t working, so Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey take a look under the hood:
The early June meeting in the Cabinet Room was intended as a general update on President Trump’s reelection campaign, but the president had other topics on his mind.
Trump had taken a cognitive screening test as part of his 2018 physical, and now, more than two years later, he brought up the 10-minute exam. He waxed on about how he’d dazzled the proctors with his stellar performance, according to two people familiar with his comments. He walked the room of about two dozen White House and reelection officials through some of the questions he said he’d aced, such as being able to repeat five words in order.
At the time, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment – which includes animal pictures and other simple queries aimed at detecting mild cognitive impairment such as dementia – was intended to quell questions about Trump’s mental fitness. But in recalling it, Trump said he thought presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would never be able to pass it and suggested challenging him to take the test, said the people familiar with Trump’s comments, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private details.
He can repeat five words in order. Can Joe Biden do that? He managed to panic everyone in the room:
The seeming non sequitur was part of Trump’s growing preoccupation in recent weeks over perceptions of his mental and physical health, at a time when critics have mocked him for episodes in which they say he has appeared frail or confused. The attacks Trump has previously levied against Biden – dismissing the former vice president as “Sleepy Joe,” secreted away in his basement and enfeebled – have boomeranged back on him, as opponents have seized on Trump’s own missteps to raise concerns.
In short, stay far away from this issue, but it was too late for that:
Another sign of Trump’s unease came Saturday night in Tulsa, when the president devoted more than 14 minutes to regaling a campaign rally crowd with the tale of “the ramp and the water.” Eager to dismiss questions about his fitness after he struggled with a glass of water and walked unsteadily down a ramp following his June 13 commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Trump offered a revisionist history.
The ramp on that sunny day, Trump asserted, was as slippery as “an ice-skating rink.” But he “ran down” it nonetheless, he claimed, despite video evidence showing him shuffling down the incline haltingly. As for the water, Trump said, he used two hands to drink because he didn’t want to spill on his expensive silk tie.
“Anyway, that’s a long story, but here’s the story,” the president said, finally winding down. “I’ve lived with the ramp and the water since I left West Point.”
He had previously obsessed about the episode to aides in private and during a Wall Street Journal interview, when he brought the incident up unprompted and offered to produce the leather-bottom shoes he had been wearing that day, which he said were “not good” for ramps.
Republicans stared at their feet and said nothing. His campaign said this was Trump adding a bit of levity to the evening. Fox News said he was trolling CNN and all the other “fake news” reporting on this. And the Democrats pounced:
“In the middle of the worst economy in a century and with more than a hundred thousand Americans dead this guy is primarily concerned with not looking weak,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), referring to the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic. “And his endless, bottomless insecurity was onstage, in three dimensions, during that storytelling moment, for everyone to see. I’ve seen a lot of crazy things in the last four years but that display of juvenile behavior and self-regard will go in the Trump time capsule.”
But let him trap himself:
Last week, Trump and his campaign team lobbied the presidential debate commission to have four debates, because they believe Biden will look weaker and will make more mistakes than Trump on the debate stage.
The president has encouraged advisers to attack Biden over his mental acuity, White House officials said, but some worry that doing so too aggressively could backfire and hurt him among senior citizens.
“For someone so obsessed with appearing strong, Donald Trump shows us every day just how weak he is,” Biden press secretary T. J. Ducklo said in a statement Monday.
That wasn’t nice. That was also a trigger:
Trump is attuned to any portrayal of him as weak. He was furious earlier this month after news leaked that he and his family were rushed to a secure underground bunker as protesters converged on the White House in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed in Minneapolis police custody. He initially falsely claimed that he had simply visited the bunker to inspect it.
Trump has also refused to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, despite his own government’s guidelines, and has regularly suggested that Biden and others who wear them are showing weakness or fear.
Flying to Tulsa on Air Force One Saturday, the president was fuming to aides about the small crowd size of his rally – about 6,000 people in a 19,000-seat arena – another form of weakness in his mind.
And that was quite useful information:
Trump’s critics have seized on his agita, taking every opportunity to needle him publicly. Last week, the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump Republican group, launched a new 45-second ad that begins, “Something’s wrong with Donald Trump.”
“He’s shaky, weak, trouble speaking, trouble walking,” the narrator continues as grainy images flash by, including of Trump at West Point. “The most powerful office in the world needs more than a weak, unfit, shaky president.”
Less than 24-hours after the Tulsa rally, the group pushed out another video, mocking his smaller-than-expected turnout, and hitting similar themes: “Sad, weak, low-energy,” says the narrator. “Just like your presidency, just like you.”
And with that they had him:
Mike Murphy, a vocal Trump critic who is now a strategic adviser to Republican Voters against Trump, said Trump’s obsession with never seeming weak belies a deeper insecurity, making this particular line of attack particularly devastating.
“And now the strong guy – the strength image – is melting and we found out how weak and needy he is,” Murphy said. “If it’s ‘Sleepy Joe,’ we have ‘Weak, Needy Donald’ and that is his kryptonite.”
And now he’s trapped:
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said the challenge for the Trump team now is that they “always put themselves into this everything is the biggest ever, the greatest ever” box, making it difficult for Trump to countenance even the slight hint of weakness on his part. “What we’re seeing over the past few weeks is really the issue of what gets under his skin.”
Heye said that while he didn’t think the initial coverage of the West Point ramp or water drinking was particularly problematic, the president clearly did. “He has been rattled by the reaction to it, and it’s because it speaks to that issue of strength,” Heye said.
So he had to fix that:
Reaching under his lectern in Tulsa during his reenactment episode Saturday, the president pulled out a glass of water and brought it to his lips with one hand, raising it to the crowd between sips as if toasting an achievement. Then he tossed it away to his side as his supporters roared with delight.
That’s nice, but few showed up for that rally. Who thinks of him as strong, now? He was once Cadet Bone Spurs. Now he’s an angry old man kind of losing it. He often doesn’t make sense. But he does shout and sneer, a lot. And he’s losing the upcoming election to a kindly old man kind of losing it. Biden drifts away too, but he doesn’t seem to want to kill anyone at the moment.
This is not much of a choice, but a weak old white man desperately hoping that someone will see him as awesomely strong, in power, is incredibly dangerous. The pleasant old white man who drifts off in rosy clouds wouldn’t be.
That’s it? How did it come to this?