In an exchange with his then White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, Trump reportedly complained: “You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?”
Kelly asked which generals, prompting Trump to reply: “The German generals in World War II.”
According to the excerpt published by the New Yorker from The Divider: Trump in the White House, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, an incredulous Kelly pointed out that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was almost assassinated three times by his military leaders.
“No, no, no, they were totally loyal to him,” Trump replied, apparently unaware of the attempts, including Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot in July 1944 to kill Hitler with a bomb inside his Wolf’s Lair field headquarters.
Kelly reportedly told Trump that there were no American generals who observe total loyalty to a president. Instead, they swear, like all military personnel, to “support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic”.
The stunning back-and-forth came during a dispute touched off by Trump’s admiration for military parades, gleaned in part by personally observing Bastille Day celebrations thrown in France by that country’s president, Emmanuel Macron.
Trump stubbornly wanted a similar military parade to mark the Fourth of July independence day holiday. But his cabinet staff was less enthusiastic, and it became a point of contention.
According to the excerpt, a French general overseeing the 2017 Bastille Day parade in Paris turned to one of his American counterparts in Trump’s delegation and said: “You are going to be doing this next year.” The idea was seeded.
Trump, on his return to Washington, hatched a plan for the “biggest, grandest military parade ever for the Fourth of July”. But the plans went down badly with Trump’s cabinet staff.
“I’d rather swallow acid,” the defense secretary and former Marine Corps general, James Mattis, is reported to have said, offering that a similarly grandiose military parade was unfeasible in part because of the cost and the fear that tanks would tear up the streets of Washington.
But Trump was already formulating his vision, telling Kelly: “Look, I don’t want any wounded guys in the parade. This doesn’t look good for me.”
According to the publication, the subject came up repeatedly. With each pushback, Trump’s admiration for the military advisers which he used to fawningly refer to as “my generals” cooled.
In one exchange involving Kelly and Paul Selva, then vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Trump appeared surprised that the former military men were not supportive.
Selva, who had grown up in António de Oliveira Salazar’s Portuguese dictatorship, informed Trump that “parades were about showing the people who had the guns. And in this country, we don’t do that.” He added: “It’s not who we are.”
“So, you don’t like the idea?” Trump responded.
“No,” Selva said. “It’s what dictators do.”
In a statement to the magazine, Trump said: “These were very untalented people and once I realized it, I did not rely on them, I relied on the real generals and admirals within the system.”
• This article was amended on 9 August 2022. The book excerpt says John Kelly referred to three assassination attempts on Hitler, not just one as stated in an earlier version.