Why we should worry that the only restraint on Trump is three unelected generals

John Kelly, James Mattis and HR McMaster form a triumvirate of power at the heart of US democracy.

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Donald Trump calls them “my generals”: retired marine corps generals John Kelly and James Mattis – the White House chief of staff and the defence secretary, respectively – and serving US army general HR McMaster, the national security adviser. Today, these three men form an unelected triumvirate of power at the heart of American democracy. “Connected by their faith in order and global norms,” reported the Washington Post on 22 August, “these military leaders are rapidly consolidating power throughout the executive branch as they counsel a volatile president.”

To be clear: their power is unprecedented. “This is the only time in modern presidential history when we’ve had a small number of people from the uniformed world hold this much influence over the chief executive,” John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA, told the Post. “They are right now playing an extraordinary role.”

Is it an extraordinarily positive or negative role, though? The consensus view, among not just top Republicans but leading Democrats, is that the generals are acting as crucial bulwarks against Trumpian extremism and recklessness. “We should be reassured that there are competent professionals who want to make smart choices” around the president, says the Democratic senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

Members of the media, on both right and left, seem to agree. “Trump’s generals can save the world from war – and stop the crazy,” read a headline in Newsweek. News website Axios dubbed them the “committee to save America”. All three men have been the recipients of gushing profiles; references to “soldier scholars” abound.

Consider me a sceptic. Where, after all, is the evidence that this trio of military men have succeeded in restraining or moderating Trump? In recent weeks, on Kelly’s watch, Trump has pandered to white supremacists in Charlottesville; revived a false story about the killing of Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig blood; pardoned the racist Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio; and – at the time of writing – decided to end the DACA programme, which provides protection for young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children.

Before that, on Mattis and McMaster’s watch, Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, threatened to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, alienated long-standing US security allies across the world – from Nato to Qatar to, most recently, South Korea – and escalated his war of words with North Korea. (“Fire and fury”, anyone?)

These military men don’t seem to be immune to some Trumpian tendencies themselves. Kelly is on record telling members of Congress who were critical of the administration’s harsh approach to deportations to either change the law or “shut up” and was caught on a hot mic joking with Trump that he should use a sword “on the press, sir”.

On foreign policy, all three men collectively pushed the president to abandon his earlier, well-documented opposition to sending more American troops to fight in Afghanistan. Thanks to Mattis, Kelly and McMaster, the US is now doubling down on an unwinnable war. (The idea, incidentally, that sending a mere 4,000 extra troops to fight the Taliban will bring America’s longest conflict to a close is beyond laughable.)

Meanwhile, Trump’s hawkish rhetoric on North Korea has been matched by his supposedly sober advisers. Mattis talks of a “massive military response” and “total annihilation”. McMaster has claimed “classic deterrence theory” does not work with North Korea, despite plenty of experts – including Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser under Barack Obama – believing the United States can contain a nuclear-armed North Korea. Do we really expect a bunch of hawkish generals to stand between us and World War III?

Maybe. Perhaps they will even learn how to restrain Trump at home, too. Yet there are bigger issues at stake: should generals, whether serving or retired, be exercising so much influence over an elected president? Particularly in a country such as the United States that has always stressed the importance of civilian control over the military?

This feels like the birth of a militarised presidency. The Associated Press revealed in August that Mattis and Kelly have privately agreed “that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House”. Neither Mattis nor Kelly were elected. So what gives them the right to “keep tabs” on an elected president in this way? And what kind of precedent does this set?

Without the generals, their defenders claim, Trump would be unchecked and unrestrained; able and willing to launch nuclear Armageddon with the push of a button. This is both disingenuous and absurd. If Trump is a danger to the world – and to quote another retired US general, James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, it is “pretty damn scary” that someone as “unfit” as Trump has access to the nuclear codes – then his cabinet members, including the three generals, should resign en masse. That might force the vice-president and congressional Republicans to consider removing him from office, either via the 25th amendment or via impeachment.

Even the seemingly Teflon Trump would be threatened by the political fallout from losing not one, or two, but all three of his prized military men at once. It would also be an honourable way for this trio of feted generals to prove they truly are the committee to save America, rather than the committee to save Trump… from himself. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move