Military-Civilian Relations in Donald Trump’s White House


In the adult day care center at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, General John Kelly has been generally seen as a leading pillar of stability. Since replacing the hapless Reince Preibus as Chief of Staff, he has brought a degree of order to the President’s schedule and cut down on unfettered access to him particularly by the most zealous staff members.  He has also reassured many outsiders by his mere presence.

Managing the White House may well be the most challenging job of Kelly’s long and distinguished career.  We continue to be reminded that not even a career Marine General can bring total order to the chaos that defines the Trump Administration.  Trump continues his tweets at all hours on all topics, big and small.  He lurches from position to position with no warning and no apparent rationale.  The family kiddie corps still occupies offices down the hall despite their absence of relevant qualifications or discernible impact on the issues they claim to care about.

In fairness to Kelly, he can hardly be expected to perform miracles.  As a staff person in the White House with no operational responsibilities and a history of strict adherence to the chain of command, Kelly likely sees his job as managing rather than weighing in on major policy issues.  Those looking to him to save the Affordable Care Act or prevent a massive give-away of tax dollars to America’s richest 1% are almost certain to be disappointed.

The main hope of Trump-watchers is that Kelly will keep him away from the nuclear button and rein in his reckless threats to start a war with North Korea because his pride has been hurt by Kim Jong un. They also hope he can insure that Trump maintains the United States’ membership in NATO and avoids a confrontation in the Middle East.  Whether Kelly plays a role in Trump’s apparent desire to dramatically increase the military budget as well as the country’s nuclear arsenal is much less clear.

Kelly certainly does not conform to the stereotype of military generals sometimes found in popular fiction.  Neither “Seven Days in May”–depicting an attempted military coup–nor “Dr. Strangelove”–scary satire about a nuclear war resulting from unhinged fingers on the levers of power–seems relevant.

In fact, the authors of the Constitution consciously constructed a system in which civilian control over the military was one of the fundamental principles of American government.  By contrast, in the contemporary world, we have numerous examples of the military seizing control in countries with less well-established traditions of constitutional government.

Among the critical strengths that Kelly brings to his job are his reputation and his credibility.  While he clearly possess political skills–anyone who rose to the most senior levels of the military as he did had to be politically adept–he is now operating in a totally different political environment.  At times, his lack of experience in national partisan politics has shown.

Beyond that, Trump has continuously disregarded traditional political norms and has left even wily veterans of Washington scratching their heads trying to figure out what makes him tick.  Kelly, in other words, is not the only one having to learn on the job how to deal with a president who frequently simply disregards the existing rules.

That’s the context for assessing Kelly’s dive into the ugly mess Trump created last week regarding calls to families of service members killed since he assumed office.  The General is certainly incredibly knowledgable about the challenges of comforting families who have lost a loved one in war.  That one of those lost was his own son makes the issue an understandably emotional one for him.

Kelly’s very human side showed when he took the podium at a press briefing to support Trump in a dispute with a family who publicly objected to the tone and content of his “condolence” call.  The politics of the issue were further complicated by the fact that a Congresswoman and friend of the family was riding in the car and overheard Trump’s call on a speaker phone.

Whether Kelly learns from this experience will be a key to his continuing effectiveness as Chief of Staff.  He made at less three significant errors, all of which reflect the dangers of working for Donald Trump.

For one, Kelly made an accusation about the Congresswoman that was false.  He has yet to correct the record or apologize.  His mistake was almost certainly the result of believing something that he had been told in much the same way that Colin Powell made the case at the United Nations for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction based on a faulty briefing.

Distortions of what political opponents say or do are much too common in today’s politics.  Whether the information passed on to Kelly was known to be false or was the result of sloppy staff work is less important than that his credibility took a big hit as the result of his public assertion.  I assume that Kelly will be more careful in the future about who he believes.

A second costly mistake was to engage in the kind of name calling that is a staple of Trump’s political style.  Calling a critic an “empty barrel” diminishes Kelly and makes him look like less of a general and more of a partisan mud-slinger.  That’s Trump’s job, not his.

Finally, even though he was operating in an area of personal expertise and experience, Kelly failed to see the other side of the argument when he made sweeping statements about the “correct” way to receive condolence calls.  He dismissed out of hand the right of a grieving family member to handle the information in any way she chooses.  That Kelly was “shocked” that someone else heard the call is imposing his personal preference and ignoring the rights of others.

The big lesson for Kelly from this incident should be that his credibility and reputation are on the line every time he goes public in support of the President.  He may believe that it buys him more leeway to manage Trump, but the President’s incredibly short-term focus suggests that he will care only about what Kelly has “done for him lately.”

Count me among those who hopes that Kelly learns from this experience and that he continues to be a stabilizing force in the most erratic and dangerous presidential administration in American history.