Trump and the Military: A Dysfunctional Marriage, but They Stay Together

Helene Cooper, Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt and Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the White House in Washington, Oct. 30, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Days after President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw 1,000 U.S. troops from Syria, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saw a way to turn it around.

The businessman in Trump had focused on the Syrian oil fields that, if left unprotected, could fall into the hands of the Islamic State group — or Russia or Iran. So Milley proposed to a receptive Trump that U.S. commandos, along with allied Syrian Kurdish fighters, guard the oil.

Today, 800 U.S. troops remain in Syria.

“We’re keeping the oil,” Trump told reporters Wednesday before his meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. “We left troops behind, only for the oil."

That is a far cry from where Trump was last month, when he ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from northern Syria. But now, for the second time in less than a year, the Pentagon has softened the president’s initial decision.

“I credit Milley with convincing the president to modify his Syria decision,” said Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff, who spoke several times with Trump and Milley last month during the frenzied days of the president’s zigzagging Syria policy.

Nearly three years into the Trump presidency, the Pentagon is learning how to manage a capricious president whose orders can whipsaw by the hour. Top Defense Department officials have acquired their education the hard way, through Trump’s Twitter bullying of Iran and North Korea, letdown of allies in Syria, harsh attacks on the Atlantic alliance and public support for commandos the military has charged with war crimes. Trump, top Pentagon officials say, is unpredictable, frustrating and overly focused on spectacles like military parades.

But there is much these officials like about the president.

They are happy with the annual budget boost he gave them — to $716 billion this year from $585 billion in 2016 — and are pleased he has done away with what they considered micromanaging by Obama White House officials. Trump has also given commanders in combat zones a far freer hand to conduct raids. And among a big portion of the rank and file, those service members who mirror Trump’s conservative base, he remains very popular.

In many ways, the U.S. military remains the part of the government most responsive to the president across a large and fractious administration, because civilian control of the armed forces is embedded in the Constitution and the psyche of every soldier. But for Trump, the other side of that coin is that the military respects the coequal branches of government, as Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman demonstrated in recent days when, against the wishes of the president, he testified in the House impeachment proceeding.

New Freedom, and New Fallout

Once Trump took office, he gave the Pentagon and military commanders more running room. He allowed the Pentagon to speed up decision-making so the military could move faster on raids, airstrikes, bombing missions and arming allies in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The Pentagon, after eight years of chafing at what many generals viewed as the slow decision-making and second-guessing by the Obama White House, at first embraced the new commander in chief.

But with the new freedom came repercussions. Trump deflected blame onto the Pentagon if things went wrong. After a botched raid in Yemen in January 2017, which led to the death of Chief Petty Officer William Owens, a member of the Navy SEALs known as Ryan, Trump appeared to blame the military — a stunning departure from previous presidents, who as commanders in chief have traditionally accepted responsibility for military operations that they ordered.

“They explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected,” Trump told Fox News after the raid. “And they lost Ryan.”

On another issue important to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the Army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, have reached out quietly to Trump in recent days to ask that he not interfere in several war crimes cases. Defense Department officials are concerned that presidential pardons could undermine discipline across the ranks. The Army, for instance, is prosecuting a Green Beret, Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, in the killing of a man linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan; Trump has indicated he may pardon him. “I do have full confidence in the military justice system,” Esper told reporters.

And in the case of Syria, the Pentagon gave Trump an unexpected gift in return: the U.S. commando raid that led to the death of the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which so elated the president that he tweeted the news as soon as U.S. troops were out of harm’s way.

The next day, Trump triumphantly mentioned Milley four times during his 48-minute news conference on the raid, calling him “incredible” for his work and thanking him by name before any other senior administration officials.

Commanders have also learned to carefully parse their comments, wary of having their words construed as subtle criticism of the president.

During a news conference, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the U.S. Central Command, declined to repeat Trump’s assertion that the Islamic State leader was “whimpering” before he detonated his suicide vest after U.S. troops raided his compound.

But McKenzie backed up Trump’s characterization of al-Baghdadi as a coward. “He crawled into a hole with two small children, blew himself up,” the general said. “So, you can deduce what kind of person it is based on that activity.”

Defense Department officials also make sure to speak more frequently about how important it is to get NATO allies in Europe to “pay their fair share,” echoing Trump’s more transactional view of how that alliance should proceed. By emphasizing payment, rather than simply saying that the Pentagon wants European governments to bolster their own internal military budgets — a more accurate description of NATO policy — U.S. officials couch something they wanted anyway in language that will appeal to the president.

On the Korean Peninsula, the United States and South Korea have continued to conduct joint military exercises despite Trump’s announcement that such “war games” be suspended pending nuclear negotiations with North Korea. Stopping the exercises completely, Defense Department officials say, would hurt military readiness in the event the United States does end up at war with the North. The military now conducts them at a smaller scale level and no longer makes them public.

In Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of the war effort there, is preparing to shrink the U.S. presence. Trump has said he wants all the troops withdrawn, but has given no timetable. Miller now has plans that could reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 8,600 troops, from roughly 12,000 to 13,000 — a move, U.S. officials say, that will allow Trump to say in his 2020 reelection campaign that he is bringing the troops home. But it will leave what commanders consider an adequate number on the ground.

Clashes Over Syria

The relationship between Trump and the military has been the most fraught over Syria policy.

The problems began last December, when Trump first tried to bring what were then 2,000 U.S. troops home from Syria and Jim Mattis, his first defense secretary, resigned in protest. In the storm that followed — Republicans, Democrats and some of Trump’s own advisers said he was pulling out of the fight before the Islamic State was defeated for good — Trump backtracked and agreed to leave some 1,000 U.S. forces. But over the past year, Pentagon officials let them operate almost in secret to avoid calling attention to the fact that Defense Department officials had talked the president out of his initial order.

In early October, after a phone call with Erdogan, Trump signaled he had had enough, and announced he was pulling out those remaining troops. Once again there was another outcry from Republicans, Democrats and Trump’s own national security advisers, who said he was paving the way for a Turkish offensive against the United States’ longtime allies, Kurdish fighters, who had carried the brunt of the fight against the Islamic State. In particular, the military did not want to abandon the Kurds.

“The idea of walking away from that sacrifice, that is something that really bothers,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. “You want to salute and follow the orders of the duly elected political authorities, but you also don’t want to betray the sacrifice of your comrades. That puts the military, at least their hearts, in a tough place.”

“The decision to betray the Kurds punches a huge hole in the current way we fight terrorists which is by, with and through allies,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who is on the Armed Services Committee and a former senior Pentagon official.

Milley, along with Esper, looked quickly at how to yet again make the case to Trump that U.S. forces still had work to do in Syria. The military’s Central Command had drafted two alternate plans.

One proposal would have kept a small force to help control a small swath of the border between Iraq and Syria, about 10% of the area. Another option would try to keep control of a larger part of the country — more than half of the area the U.S. and Kurdish fighters currently controlled.

But after Trump told Milley he wanted to keep the oil fields, the Pentagon quickly “operationalized” a new plan wrapped around using U.S. forces and their Kurdish allies to protect the oil and to keep it from falling into the hands of the Islamic State, officials said. From Brussels, where he was attending a NATO meeting, Esper was on the phone with Milley completing details of the new plan.

Milley, for his part, has been advised by friends to maintain a low profile, and not to appear to be contradicting Trump’s decisions or strategy. Known for long monologues, Milley has also learned to be concise with Trump, offering clear opinions but allowing the president to dominate the conversation.

By the end of October, Trump was on board with the Pentagon plan. At Game 5 of the World Series, he was in one of the luxury boxes at Nationals Park surrounded by Republican members of Congress and top aides. The conversation turned to Syria.

Trump talked about how he was revising his plans for Syria, repeatedly telling lawmakers that U.S. forces would remain there. Why? Because America was “keeping the oil.”

Senior military and Defense Department officials say that in some cases, it is simply a matter of talking in a way that will appeal to Trump, while prosecuting a similar national security policy as they did under President Barack Obama.

“The Pentagon has figured out that they can couch things to manage Trump’s biases in some ways,” said Derek Chollet, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration. “Don’t make it about saving the Kurds, make it about saving the oil.”

At the moment, the Pentagon is left trying to continue the strategy in a patchwork fashion, with Milley’s move to keep U.S. troops in Syria helping Kurdish fighters protect oil fields the latest piece.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company