Everyone thinks John Kelly's a hero for firing Scaramucci – but Trump's history with retired generals is concerning

Trump’s treatment of both Mattis and McMaster suggests he secretly has disdain for those in the military. He has flouted their advice, ignored them when convenient and exposed them to humiliation. Now McCain has lost patience with Trump's disrespect for former generals, and is taking foreign policy into his own hands

David Usborne
New York
Tuesday 01 August 2017 18:45 BST
Trump's lawyer suggested he and Chief of Staff John Kelly were only adults in White House
Trump's lawyer suggested he and Chief of Staff John Kelly were only adults in White House (AP)

We know Donald Trump has a bit of a military fetish. He has twice boarded America’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, promising to splurge on new hardware for his fighting forces. The first time, in March, he played fancy dress in a Naval green bomber jacket, enraging veterans who recalled his five deferments as a young man to dodge the Vietnam draft.

It’s a chest-beating thing. Power and powerful people get his attention. Power, in his mind, comes in two forms. Either you have money or you have stars on your epaulettes. He promised to put America first and resist the urge to plunge the country into foreign adventures. But he dropped that MOAB bomb on Isis targets in Afghanistan and fired cruise missiles into Syria.

“When it comes to battle, we don't want a fair fight,” he blasted upon returning to the Ford for its commissioning ceremony last month. “We want just the opposite. We demand victory, and we will have total victory, believe me.” No restraint there. Sounds more like boys with toys to me.

No recent president has been so enamored with retired generals with the possible exception of Dwight Eisenhower (on account of having been one himself). Michael Flynn batted for him on the campaign trail and was rewarded with the job of National Security Advisor. When his number came up in February following revelations of previously undisclosed meetings with important Russians, he was replaced by H.R. McMaster. I bet even the name sounded good to Trump.

Instead of a civilians, Trump picked James Mattis, ex-commander of the US Central Command, for Defence Secretary, and John Kelly, a former Marine Corps General, to lead Homeland Security. Now Kelly has been drafted in to bring an entirely errant West Wing back to heel.

Kelly as Chief of Staff has struck nearly everyone as a good thing. He forced the resignation of Anthony Scaramucci as communications boss, triggering peals of bells and general hilarity across the land. He is allegedly already working on Democrats on what they don’t grasp about Trump’s lovability. Most importantly, we are being told, he will finally impose some discipline on Trump himself. The reasoning is simple: Trump admires generals. He is in awe of them, even.

But the evidence for this isn’t there. Trump’s treatment of both Mattis and McMaster has been exactly the opposite. He has flouted their advice, ignored them when convenient and exposed them to humiliation. Perhaps only Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, has more reason to run into a dark corner and mope. Or maybe he has already. Has anyone actually seen Rex lately?

President Donald Trump talks with new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly
President Donald Trump talks with new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (AP)

McMaster keeps his irritation to himself. But consider: he was blindsided when Trump stood before Nato allies in Brussels and left out the one line he had insisted must remain, about the mutual defense provisions of the Alliance treaty. His own authority is undermined each time he has to lie to the media whenever the latest West Wing flap du jour has foreign policy implications. It was he who had to deny Trump had spilled classified intel to Russian officials in the Oval Office when he plainly had.

A bad day for Mattis is one that starts with a Twitter post from his boss declaring transgender Americans can no longer serve in the military. Say what? Had this come after an exhaustive review by the Pentagon? After it had been asked for input at least? It had not. Indeed, Mattis had been pushing back against the conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill who had been venting about existing policy on transgender soldiers, the ones Trump clearly meant to mollify.

The marginalising of Mattis and McMaster infuriates those Republicans who believed that for all Trump’s foibles and flaws he had at least assembled an impressive national security team. Like Senator John McCain, who thought that with the two generals in place foreign policy would be shielded from all the other madness. McCain, now under treatment for brain cancer, did not care for the transgender tweet. “There is no reason to force service members who are able to fight, train and deploy to leave the military — regardless of their gender identity,” he declared.

But nothing drives them battier than the mess on Afghanistan. They’ve had their disagreements on detail, but for the most part Mattis and McMaster have been on the same page urging Trump to acknowledge that the current military posture there is untenable. If the Afghan forces, helped by roughly 8,400 US troops still there, aren’t actually losing ground to the Taliban they certainly aren't winning any. But each time they get one Trump ear to urge him to authorise a new troop surge, so Steve Bannon, his senior advisor, gets the other one to say the opposite.

On Afghanistan, McCain has lost all patience, serving notice on Monday that come the autumn he intends taking charge and plotting the way forward. “More than six months after President Trump's inauguration, there still is no strategy for success in Afghanistan,” he complained. “I will offer an amendment based on the advice of some our best military leaders that will provide a strategy for success in achieving America's national interests in Afghanistan.”

It’s a shocking turn and a searing indictment of Trump and therefore his entire foreign policy team, a foreign policy team that has two retired generals at its top. Maybe Kelly has something Mattis and McMaster do not, but he will need more than few fraying stars on his shoulder to pull this administration - and this president - back from its current state of chaos.

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