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President Trump’s July 4 “Salute to America” heaped praise on the U.S. Armed Forces but also generated concern about potentially politicizing the military. William Brangham talks to Mike Lyons of West Point’s Modern War Institute and Peter Feaver of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies about whether the president crossed the line and the risk of involving the military in a “civic photo op.”
The troops are back in barracks, the military jets have landed, and smoke from the fireworks has cleared following President Trump's Salute to America on the National Mall last night.
But, as William Brangham tells us, questions remain about Mr. Trump's relations with the military and the role politics play in it.
It was billed as the show of a lifetime by the president, who cast himself as its star.
Flanked by military hardware outside the Lincoln Memorial and with jets overhead, President Trump's Salute to America heaped praise on the U.S. armed forces.
President Donald Trump:
Through centuries, our soldiers have always pointed toward home proclaiming, this, we will defend. They are the greatest soldiers on Earth.
But some critics just across the Mall said the event was a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars, and another move by the president to co-opt the military and to make patriotism political.
I don't think the Fourth of July should be politicized like it has been this year, because it's a national holiday.
After President Trump attended France's grand Bastille Day Parade in Paris two summers ago, he said he wanted to do the same back home.
Because of what I have witnessed, we may do something like that on July 4 in Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The president's supporters point out this isn't the first time military armaments have rolled through the streets of Washington. President Roosevelt's 1941 inauguration had tanks on the Mall.
In 1957, President Eisenhower celebrated his second presidency with missiles and warplanes. And President Kennedy's 1961 inaugural parade brought troops down Pennsylvania Avenue. Spectators watched on as rockets rolled by.
The last time Americans saw a parade like this was 28 years ago, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War. In the largest military parade since World War II, President George H.W. Bush, with throngs in the streets, welcomed home the armed forces.
But some analysts argue, this is different, saying, President Trump has politicized the military to a dangerous level. Last May, during a visit to Japan, some in the White House reportedly told the U.S. Navy to move the USS John McCain, named for the late senator and his father and grandfather, out of sight for fear of angering Mr. Trump.
He denied any knowledge of the effort.
To me, John McCain, I wasn't a fan, but I would never do a thing like that.
Then acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan later sent a department-wide memo reiterating Pentagon standards on political activity: "I call on leaders at all levels in the department to reinforce the apolitical nature of military and civilian service and professionalism."
In January 2017, President Trump, while standing in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes, a space dedicated to those decorated with the Medal of Honor, announced his controversial travel ban against seven mostly Muslim nations. And he appointed serving or recently retired generals to top national security positions.
Retired Marine General James Mattis was appointed secretary of defense. His first national security adviser was retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, and his second, General H.R. McMaster, remained on active duty while in that role. His second chief of staff, John Kelly, was a retired four-star Marine general.
The president has also has a habit of using the possessive when describing the U.S. military.
I see my generals. Those generals are going to keep us so safe. And what I do is, I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world. My generals and my military, they have decision-making ability.
To discuss this intersection between presidents, politics and the military, we are joined by Peter Feaver. He's a professor of political science at Duke University. He has served on the National Security Council staff under Democratic and Republican presidents. And Mike Lyons is a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He served in the Gulf War as an Army officer.
Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thanks for being here on the "NewsHour."
Peter Feaver, to you first.
Do you think President Trump is stepping over the line?
No, I think I know what he was trying for.
He perhaps didn't hit the mark that he was aiming for, but what he was looking for was a celebration of America, a celebration of things that bring us together, probably something like the movie, if you have been to the World War II Museum, narrated by Tom Hanks, which really describes America in heroic terms. And you leave the movie feeling very proud to be an American.
I think that's what he was aiming for, but because of the baggage that he brings to the table and because this is not his strong suit giving these speeches, it probably didn't hit the mark.
And, as a result, it may have inadvertently politicized something that probably would have been better off left untouched.
Mike Lyons, you have heard a lot of this criticism that's been levied against the president, that he is politicizing the military in some way, not just yesterday, but in prior events.
My sense is, you think that that's a lot of a tempest in a teapot. Is that right?
Yes, it is.
The hysteria built up for weeks before, even months before. I would go as far as to say as the Pentagon almost undermined it themselves. They didn't really want to do this from the beginning. Those missions came out very early on as to what the expectation was going to be.
And I think that they used the media, unfortunately, to get a lot of disinformation out with regard to how the thing was going to go, that general officers weren't happy about it. Their mission was to execute on what the president's vision was.
And, as it turned out, though, they saw the benefit of that because the president became the recruiter in chief last night, speaking to, perhaps influencing and inspiring somebody to join our great military, which, again, would be worth every penny that was spent on that event just for that one thing to happen.
Specifically, what you're — sticking with you, Mike, for a second — this issue of what you would have — what would you have preferred the Pentagon to do with regards to last night?
I know you were saying that they let out a false narrative here. What would you rather they had done?
Well, I think this whole thing about how vehicles were going to get to the National Mall, just a few of them to begin with, they could have put that expectation out a lot earlier on.
You had very famous analysts and people talking about, they were going to be marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, Tiananmen Square-type situations taking place, it was going to simulate what the Russians and the Chinese do and tin-pot dictators.
If the Pentagon released a plan that said it was only going to be a couple of static displays of some tanks and some Bradleys and the like, it would have quelled some of the hysteria that took place well beforehand and made this more palatable from the very beginning.
Peter Feaver, what is your sense of what the downside to this is?
Let's just say — I appreciate what you said about what the president's actions ended up being yesterday, but, more broadly, the politicization of the military, what is the downside of that? Symbolism aside, what is the downside?
Well, first thing, let's be clear. If the president had announced that what actually happened was what was going to happen from the beginning, there wouldn't have been much of a fuss. But, of course, it also wouldn't have been all that exciting either.
It was overhyped by the White House, as well as foot-dragging from the Pentagon. I think there's probably some blame on both sides.
But the danger here — and then the third party that's to blame is partisan critics of the president, who seized this opportunity. And they were releasing T-shirts of the USS McCain, trolling the president, because of his stormy relationship with Senator McCain, former senator.
And what this does is, it's fighting over the carcass of the U.S. military, which is supposed to be independent, nonpolitical, servant of the entire state, and not just of a political party.
When you bring politicization in, you're raising doubts about the reliability, that the military will obey lawful orders when it's given, that they will not inject their own partisan political preferences into the strategy-making, strategy execution business. And we depend on the military being nonpartisan like that.
But when you bring them into partisan food fights, as has happened over the last several weeks, you're chipping away at that nonpartisan status. And that's just not good for anyone. No — neither Republican or Democrat wins if the military takes on a partisan cast.
Mike Lyons, what is your sense of that? Do you see that also as a danger? And do you see us doing any of that? Do you see this administration or prior administrations doing that chipping away?
No, I think it is a danger. And, clearly, other administrations have done it, even one-off situations.
What I think the danger is, retired general officers, retired military analysts who come in, pick a side, make it look like they think that this is the worst possible thing for democracy. I think they bring this other credible source to what — and make a problem a lot worse than it actually is.
The fact that you had people complaining about troops working on the weekend, working on a holiday, away from their families, where was that same pushback from those general officers about keeping troops deployed overseas and going on seven, eight, nine deployments?
Every one of those officers — those soldiers that were there were likely volunteers. They'd love to talk about their equipment. They want to use it as a recruiting tool. They want to inspire those to serve as well.
So, again, his partisan critics in this case are on full overdrive, heated white hot, and it tarnished the event, based on a lot of things that they said.
Peter Feaver, what do you make of that, that, in terms of scale, isn't sending — sending armed forces overseas for wars that seem to have no end, repeated deployments, isn't that a much greater tax on the military than a parade, a little bit of — a little bit of political posturing?
No question that that's a greater burden. But, of course, that's the whole reason that we have a military, is to defend our national interest if it's challenged at home or abroad.
And so that's mission one. And the kind of civic photo op, being the garden gnome on stage next to a political rally, that's not mission one for the military.
And I suspect that there were some of the folks who said, I would rather have spent the day with my family and friends at a barbecue.
But let's be clear that the military did the right thing by executing the lawful order that the president gave. The president ordered something like this. The White House — sorry — the president has the right to do that. And the military was right to implement the order.
I put the more burden on this White House to be more sensitive to the politicization charge. There's a number of steps that the president has taken over the last several years — and, yes, previous administrations have crossed the line as well, but this administration needs to be more attentive to self-correcting when they cross the line, and not putting the military, law enforcement, intelligence community, all our national security apparatus, not putting them in that awkward position of appearing to be politicized.
Mike Lyons, do you think that there is a good way, an easy way for the military to wall itself off?
Because, on some level, you can't change how a political actor operates. Is there a way for the military to protect itself from these concerns?
It's difficult and challenging.
We have been blessed with good military leaders that know where that boundary is, and I think would put that boundary out there, if an administration continues to cross over it.
One of the lessons I learned in the military was, don't confuse moral courage with loyalty. And I think, yes, the military will always come back to the president and say, look, we shouldn't really be doing something like this.
But the military also is a reflection of civilian society. And the Army in particular, and the Navy, they turn over individuals all the time. There's different people. It's also its own subculture, in and above itself.
And so the military sometimes picks and chooses when it comes in and comes out of these kinds of situations. But I think that it's all about leadership. And it's all about making sure that the right message is sent. I thought that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and others that were there on stage last night, they set the right tone, they had good poker faces on.
They weren't trying to politicize it, as the president didn't bring up anything that a lot of people were concerned about.
All right, Mike Lyons, Peter Feaver, thank you both very much for being here.
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