Trump’s Mix of Politics and Military Is Faulted

President Trump at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., on Monday. Second from right is Michael T. Flynn, national security adviser. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Trump opened his remarks at MacDill Air Force Base on Monday with a campaign-style celebration of his election victory, citing polls that indicated he had won the votes of a large percentage of the military.

“We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” he proclaimed to an auditorium packed with officers and troops. “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”

A day later, defense policy experts — and retired officers, who are free to speak publicly about their concerns — complained that the new commander in chief had sent the wrong signal to the military, which is sworn to faithfully carry out the lawful orders of the president, regardless of party, and is supposed to stay above the political fray.

“When President Trump suggested that it was good to support him and said he was so thankful for the support of the military, it showed that he doesn’t understand what the military in a freely elected democracy is supposed to be doing,” said Mark Hertling, a retired Army lieutenant general.

“The military takes an oath to defend the Constitution, not certain politicians,” he added.

There is no debate that MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., home of the military’s Central Command and its Special Operations Command, was a fitting place for Mr. Trump to visit. Those commands bear most of the responsibility for carrying out the campaign against the Islamic State, the militant group that Mr. Trump has vowed to destroy.

Mr. Trump’s decision to visit the base so early in his presidency was “a very big deal,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the Central Command, said as he introduced the president, who was greeted by applause from approximately 300 service members wearing fatigues.

But the president also used the occasion to promote his nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, to accuse the news media of underplaying terrorist attacks, to praise Rick Scott, the Florida governor, and to send an unsubtle message about the benefits of having supported his presidential campaign.

“If they don’t endorse, believe me, if you’re ever in this position, it’s never quite the same, O.K.,” Mr. Trump said. “You can talk, but it never means the same.”

As for the military, Mr. Trump’s comments suggested that he saw service members as another constituency: Like factory workers, farmers and coal miners, they seemed to be cast as an interest group to be wooed. MacDill, Mr. Trump said, was “quite a place, and we’re going to be loading it up with beautiful new planes and beautiful new equipment.”

Mr. Trump’s overt partisanship before an audience of armed forces personnel runs against a decades-long legacy of civilians who have guided the military in keeping with a president’s policies, while maintaining a distance from overt presidential politics.

“Many presidents pander to the military and through it to voters who focus on national defense,” said Richard H. Kohn, an expert on civil-military relations and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina. “But leading off with the election, attacking the press and talking about endorsements is a clear attempt to politicize the military and invite their partisanship. In rhetoric and style, his words mimicked a campaign rally.”

George C. Marshall, the five-star general who also led the State Department and the Pentagon, once observed that he was so determined to avoid the appearance of being political that he did not vote. That legacy has continued, and is honored by a number of military officers who have pinned stars on their shoulders.

During the election season, there was considerable debate about whether it was appropriate for retired generals like Michael T. Flynn (for Mr. Trump) or John R. Allen (for Hillary Clinton) to endorse candidates. But there was no question that active-duty officers were to stay far away from politics.

Gen. David L. Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters on Tuesday that military leaders had an obligation to “speak truth to power regardless of party.” He declined to comment on Mr. Trump’s remarks.

Peter D. Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who served on the staff of the National Security Council under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, said that Mr. Trump was right to try to build a relationship with the military he now commands. But he said it was a mistake for the president to speculate about its voting behavior.

“The military, the intelligence community and the foreign service jealously guard their professional identity of being nonpartisan and apolitical,” Mr. Feaver said. “Thus it is counterproductive to try to connect with them by appealing to a supposed partisan identity.”

Mr. Trump’s trip to MacDill follows similar appearances at the Pentagon and the C.I.A., both of which the president used as a backdrop for comments that veered into politics

With Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at this side, Mr. Trump signed an executive order last month restricting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. The signing was conducted in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, which is dedicated to the more than 3,460 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest decoration. Mr. Mattis did not know that the order was to be signed until shortly before that event, and he had no input in its formulation.

“This is part of a pattern,” said Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger officer who held a senior policy position in the Defense Department on Middle East issues during the Obama administration. “Whether it is the Memorial Wall at the C.I.A., or the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon, he is using institutions that have previously been walled off from politics to generate political support for some of his more contentious policies.”

“If the military is seen as a Donald Trump institution, that’s dangerous as well,” Mr. Exum added. “It could create the impression among young Americans that the military is a political institution.”

Source: NYTimes