After nearly 40 years of reporting on the musings of various commanders-in-chief about national security, it’s a blessing that I bailed out a month before Donald Trump took the oath of office. Part of a D.C. reporter’s job is to report on what the president says about his or her beat. For those of us covering the military, this used to include sussing out which way the chief executive was pushing the Pentagon and State Department on key issues of the day.
When it works, it’s a bit like watching a master mechanic. Presidents who want to accomplish something have a big box of socket wrenches of different sizes to choose from. They calibrate where things are, where they want them to go, and pick the right tool for the nut they’re trying to crack.
But President Trump doesn’t work that way. Instead of a socket wrench, chosen precisely to fit the challenge at hand, he uses a flamethrower. Sure, it’s a military tool, but it often doesn’t have the finesse needed to get the job done. And its constant use diminishes its value over time. Trump’s ABCs—assertion, bluster, and coercion—get a president nowhere. It takes logic, persuasion and reason. Even as the real-world pushes Trump to more moderate actions, his words remained untethered to the truth—however you define it.
Trump recently threw flames during an interview with the Associated Press shortly before his 100th day in office. There’s a wonderful symmetry to a president forever decrying “fake news” to deploy fake facts. While that’s generally unwise—especially when it becomes habitual—it can be exceptionally dangerous when it comes to national security.
He also revealed his dangerous vulnerability to flattery, citing comments made to him by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and the leaders of Italy and Japan, as proof of his business prowess and geopolitical skills. He apparently takes off-handed comments, designed to make him feel good in the moment, as statements of fact and policy, and as empirical evidence of his own grandeur. Sad!
Reading the AP interview—to pick up on another military metaphor—is like pulling 9 Gs in an F-16 fighter without a G-suit. These fancy pants squish the pilot’s legs and lower torso as the plane’s G-forces rise, helping keep blood in the brain and the pilot conscious. Without one, or one worn without adequate training (and believe me, I know) confusion and tunnel vision can be a prelude to the dreaded G-LOC—a G-induced Loss of Consciousness—that has led to multiple fatal warplane crashes.
Anyway, to get back down to Earth, some of the answers Trump gave to AP reporter Julie Pace induced such confusion. Take Trump’s push to have NATO’s European members spend more on defense. “Nobody ever asked the question,” he said of his initiative to get the European powers to spend more. “So it's a different kind of a presidency.”
Not so. The U.S. has been arguing that NATO members have needed to pay more for decades. In the 1980s, in fact, there was even a term—“burden-sharing”—coined specifically for the effort. “Deficits in the U.S. current account and the federal budget once again have moved the burden-sharing issue to the front burner of American politics,” a 1989 Rand study noted. “Many Americans believe that U.S. economic problems result from or are exacerbated by the spending burden assumed by the United States for the defense of Western Europe.”
He also defended branding NATO as “obsolete” during the campaign because “they don’t focus on terrorism.” He pled ignorance in the AP interview, saying that “people don't go around asking about NATO if I'm building a building in Manhattan.” He was oblivious to the fact that NATO joined the U.S. in attacking al Qaeda and the Taliban shortly after the 9/11 attacks…dropped a pair of skyscrapers in Manhattan.
Trump boasted that he saved taxpayers $725 million on 90 F-35 fighters. “The reason they cut—same planes, same everything—was because of me,” he said. “I mean, because that's what I do.” Fact is, the Pentagon announced there would be a “significant” decline in the plane’s cost a month before Trump took office, after years of hard-nosed negotiations between the Pentagon and the F-35’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin. That’s also because a plane’s cost generally drops over time as workers become better at building them and increased production rates lead to economies of scale.
The same day the AP released a transcript of the Trump interview, the Government Accountability Office estimated the F-35’s longer-than-expected development “will likely contribute to an increase of more than $1.7 billion” in the program’s cost. Taxpayers rightly don’t care how the plane’s cost is divided between R&D and procurement because it all comes out of their wallets.
But it was another exchange, far removed from military hardware or alliances, that took the 100-day cake. It flowed from the reporter’s question about Trump’s accomplishment in getting a ninth member appointed to the Supreme Court, after political posturing kept a seat vacant for a record 14 months.
He acknowledged the success of nominating—and winning confirmation of—Neil Gorsuch. “I've always heard that that's the biggest thing,” Trump said of getting a new member on the nation’s highest bench. But then he performed an unprompted pirouette: “Now, I would say that defense is the biggest thing.”
And then he went off the rails. “Our military is so proud,” he said. “They were not proud at all. They had their heads down. Now they have their heads up.”
There are always tides of support by U.S. troops for particular presidents. There was a high tide of support for Ronald Reagan, and a low tide for Bill Clinton. But they are mere tides, a small fraction of the oceans’ water. In my experience, troops are proud to serve their nation, regardless of their commander-in-chief. The fact that Trump lacks the self-awareness to realize this is disappointing. To hear him say that under Obama troops “were not proud at all” is disconcerting. To hear this president say that those troops had their “heads down” under that president is disgusting.
Commissioned U.S. military officers can be charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for using “contemptuous” words about the president. But Trump, even though he is their commander-in-chief, is not a commissioned officer. In addition, he was speaking ill of a former president, not the current one. Besides, as he frequently says, he was simply appealing to his base. Rarely has a homonym been more apt.
Trump’s statements (there were many more in the interview, and well beyond national security) seem to suggest that he doesn’t feel bound by the rules that govern most mortals, especially those holding enormous power. It’s hard to tell how much of his linguistic sloppiness is malicious, or simply rooted in his peculiar form of New York City bravado buffed by his perverse anti-elitism.
But Trump’s North Star has always been his own success. That has required him to tack away from some of the more outlandish statements he made as a candidate. And that suggests a willingness to listen. That could mean he can learn from the mistakes he has made during his first 100 days, and apply those lessons to the next 1,360 days (at least) that he’s slated to be commander-in-chief.