Trump pays heed to gen­er­als about mil­i­tary matters

War­rior class re­gains au­thor­ity af­ter serv­ing un­der stand­off­ish Obama

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

The same Pres­i­dent Trump who can be gruff and er­ratic in public tweets is a com­man­der in chief who is def­er­en­tial and at­ten­tive when he talks to a star-stud­ded cast of his clos­est mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers.

Peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the bud­ding re­la­tion­ships por­tray Mr. Trump as of­ten in lis­ten­ing mode among his gen­er­als and as ac­ces­si­ble as the next phone call. They con­trast the bil­lion­aire real estate de­vel­oper’s affin­ity for the top brass with for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s doc­u­mented stand­off­ish­ness.

The Tom­a­hawk strike on Syria on Fri­day un­der­scores that Wash­ing­ton’s war­rior class is again in charge of pre­sent­ing mil­i­tary op­tions to the White House in­stead of the other way around.

With three Marines and a sol­dier al­ways nearby, per­haps no pres­i­dent in re­cent mem­ory has sur­rounded him­self on a daily ba­sis with so many se­nior gen­er­als and their strate­gic brain­power.

A re­tired Ma­rine gen­eral, James Mat­tis runs the De­fense De­part­ment. His and Mr. Trump’s top mil­i­tary ad­viser is Ma­rine Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

An­other re­tired Ma­rine four-star gen­eral, John F. Kelly is re­spon­si­ble for pro­tect­ing 325 mil­lion U.S. res­i­dents as sec­re­tary of the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity.

And Mr. Trump’s al­ways-present na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, H.R. McMaster, is an ac­tive-duty Army lieu­tenant

gen­eral steeped in bat­tle­field his­tory and doc­trine.

All four have fought on the ground in Iraq against rad­i­cal Is­lam. They bring to Mr. Trump a deep col­lec­tive knowl­edge of that coun­try’s tribes and politi­cians who will lead a post-Is­lamic State Iraq. Un­like Mr. Trump, these scholar war­riors are also vo­ra­cious read­ers. Gen. McMaster, for ex­am­ple, wrote a book on how Lyn­don B. John­son bam­boo­zled the Joint Chiefs dur­ing the Viet­nam War.

But they share the body clock of a pres­i­dent who sleeps only sev­eral hours a day as well as a dis­dain for po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness.

A re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cer who knows the gen­er­als told The Wash­ing­ton Times that the pres­i­dent has grown par­tic­u­larly close to Mr. Mat­tis and Mr. Kelly. Lean and rugged, both rose in the Ma­rine Corps on par­al­lel ca­reer paths cul­mi­nat­ing in lead­ing com­bat­ant com­mands — for Mr. Mat­tis, U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand (Mid­dle East); for Mr. Kelly, U.S. Southern Com­mand (southern bor­der).

“No. 1, they get along very well,” said the for­mer of­fi­cer. “I call it street sense. They know how to talk the line, and Trump does too. Trump is like talk­ing to a con­crete worker. These two gen­er­als have got a man who lis­tens and does not pre­tend like Obama and oth­ers to know every­thing. When the pres­i­dent is out of his lane and needs ad­vice, these guys are right in there.”

Said Dakota Wood, a re­tired Ma­rine of­fi­cer and Her­itage Foun­da­tion an­a­lyst who worked on the tran­si­tion: “The pres­i­dent seems to like very suc­cess­ful sports fig­ures. It could be that he is at­tracted to the leg­endary rep­u­ta­tion that ac­com­pa­nies the Ma­rine Corps and through that lens the ac­com­plish­ments of four-star Ma­rine gen­er­als, am­pli­fied by their typ­i­cal plain-spo­ken, re­al­ity-based style of ad­dress­ing is­sues.”

An­other re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cer and tran­si­tion mem­ber said that part of the al­lure of Mat­tis-Kelly-Dun­ford-McMaster is that they have never been part of the Wash­ing­ton “swamp” that Mr. Trump has vowed to drain.

“He’s much more com­fort­able around mil­i­tary peo­ple,” said this source. “You could tell that at the Army-Navy game when he went to both sides. The gen­er­als are not politi­cians. They’re not part of the Wash­ing­ton swamp. They’re all suc­cess­ful in their ca­reer, and they are not part of the Wash­ing swamp of bureau­cracy bull.”

Bond­ing with top brass

In con­trast, Mr. Obama had a fa­mously cool re­la­tion­ship with his gen­er­als, as told by his for­mer de­fense sec­re­taries.

His first de­fense sec­re­tary, Robert M. Gates, wrote in his mem­oir, “Duty,” that Mr. Obama felt com­pelled in one meet­ing to com­mand, “That’s an or­der.”

“That or­der was un­nec­es­sary and in­sult­ing, proof pos­i­tive of the depth of the Obama White House distrust of the na­tion’s mil­i­tary leadership,” a “shocked” Mr. Gates wrote.

“The con­trol­ling na­ture of the Obama White House and the staff took mi­cro­man­age­ment and op­er­a­tional med­dling to a new level,” he said. “I think Obama con­sid­ered time spent with gen­er­als and ad­mi­rals an obli­ga­tion.”

Re­tired Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, while NATO supreme al­lied com­man­der, en­coun­tered so much trou­bling com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the White House that he asked for­mer Sec­re­tary of State Colin L. Pow­ell for help.

“I may be wrong but I do not see this WH re­ally ‘en­gaged’ by work­ing with Europe/NATO,” Gen. Breedlove wrote. “Frankly I think we are a ‘worry’ ie a threat to get the na­tion drug into a con­flict vice an ‘op­por­tu­nity’ rep­re­sented by some pretty stal­wart al­lies.”

Mr. Mat­tis and Mr. Kelly re­tired in the Obama years. Con­gres­sional aides said the White House pushed out Mr. Mat­tis as Cen­tral Com­mand chief be­cause of his tough Iran stance. Mr. Kelly de­liv­ered hawk­ish Se­nate tes­ti­mony on bor­der se­cu­rity that the ad­min­is­tra­tion did not ap­prove.

Mr. Trump sig­naled dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign that he would bond with the top brass when he ac­cused Mr. Obama of turn­ing his gen­er­als into “rub­ble.”

Mr. Trump has stacked the West Wing with cam­paign con­fi­dants: cam­paign man­ager Kellyanne Con­way, his daugh­ter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kush­ner, for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee Chair­man Reince Priebus and for­mer Bre­it­bart ex­ec­u­tive Steve Ban­non.

All have some­thing in com­mon: They have no ex­pe­ri­ence nav­i­gat­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s byzan­tine and some­times treach­er­ous bureau­cracy.

“Mat­tis and Kelly un­der­stand that the pres­i­dent and the peo­ple around him re­ally know noth­ing about gov­ern­ment and how it works,” the for­mer of­fi­cer told The Times. “In­stead of be­ing crit­i­cal, they just un­der­stand that. They’ve been very help­ful to Ban­non and the other peo­ple around them.”

Gen. McMaster, the Army sol­dier among the Marines, also lis­tens to them.

“Re­mem­ber, he’s a three-star. Not a four-star. I can tell you he re­lies on both Mat­tis and Kelly a lot,” the ex-of­fi­cer said. “They just op­er­ated for a lot of years at the World Se­ries level in this gov­ern­ment. And they know how gov­ern­ment works.”

Even be­fore the Syria strike, which shifted Mr. Trump from Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin ad­mirer to ad­ver­sary, the pres­i­dent was mov­ing in the di­rec­tion of the gen­er­als in his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

He nar­rowed his broad crit­i­cism of NATO al­lies to just one is­sue — pay­ing their fair share — while adopt­ing Mr. Mat­tis’ view that the al­liance is the world’s in­dis­pens­able part­ner­ship.

The four gen­er­als whose ca­reers fo­cused so much on the Mid­dle East are push­ing for build­ing a new Arab al­liance to check Iran and fight the Is­lamic State.

This is why, in quick suc­ces­sion, the White House played host to a pa­rade of piv­otal lead­ers: Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi, Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del-Fat­tah el-Sissi, Jor­dan’s King Ab­dul­lah II and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

‘Ex­tremely tal­ented lead­ers’

Mr. Trump also granted wide au­thor­ity to Gen. McMaster to mold the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and staff in his im­age.

Within weeks, the gen­eral re­made mem­ber­ship of the NSC de­ci­sion-mak­ing prin­ci­pals com­mit­tee — the one that weighed op­tions to re­spond to Syria’s sarin nerve gas at­tack on civil­ians. Gen. McMaster eased out Mr. Ban­non as a per­ma­nent mem­ber. He brought on Gen. Dun­ford and Direc­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Dan Coats as stand­ing mem­bers in­stead of in­vi­tees.

“So the pres­i­dent was im­me­di­ately no­ti­fied upon news of the chem­i­cal at­tack, and he was very in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing bet­ter the cir­cum­stances of the at­tack and who was re­spon­si­ble,” is how Gen. McMaster de­scribed the be­gin­ning of war cab­i­net dis­cus­sions.

Of the NSC shake-up, White House press sec­re­tary Sean Spicer said, “We had talked about the fact that he would have full au­thor­ity to over­see the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in terms of per­son­nel and struc­ture, and he has.”

Mr. Kelly was viewed as “tak­ing the hit” for the White House’s mis­steps on the pres­i­dent’s first ex­ec­u­tive or­der travel ban, which was blocked by fed­eral judges. The for­mer Ma­rine gen­eral ap­peared be­fore the press and Congress to dis­cour­age talk that he was out of the loop and at odds with the White House.

When Democrats de­manded a brief­ing on the Home­land Se­cu­rity De­part­ment’s hunt for crim­i­nal il­le­gal aliens, Mr. Kelly picked him­self to en­ter the fir­ing line. He sur­vived sev­eral heated ex­changes.

He refers to the pres­i­dent as “boss” yet wishes the pres­i­dent would not make so many ref­er­ences to build­ing a wall along the south­west­ern bor­der, a project still in search of long-range fund­ing.

The pres­i­dent sum­moned Mr. Kelly to his Mar-a-Lago re­sort in Palm Beach, Florida, one week­end to brain­storm the writ­ing of a sec­ond ex­ec­u­tive or­der on travel from pre­dom­i­nately Mus­lim coun­tries. This one re­moved Iraq from the ban, a con­ces­sion in­sid­ers at­tribute to Mr. Kelly and his knowl­edge of the vet­ting ca­pa­bil­ity in Bagh­dad.

The knowl­edge­able for­mer mil­i­tary of­fi­cer told The Times that he be­lieves Mr. Kelly, Mr. Mat­tis and Gen. McMaster have had an in­flu­ence in get­ting Mr. Trump to tamp down his steady stream of volatile tweets that take the White House off mes­sage.

Re­tired Air Force Gen. Thomas McIn­er­ney, a vet­eran of Pen­tagon bureau­cracy wars, said he be­lieves Mr. Trump learned to love the mil­i­tary as a cadet at the New York Mil­i­tary Academy.

“Cer­tainly Gen. Kelly and Gen. Mat­tis in­ter­viewed well be­cause both are ex­tremely tal­ented lead­ers as well as for­mer com­bat­ant com­man­ders and know their ar­eas of re­spon­si­bil­ity very well,” Mr. McIn­er­ney said. “In Gen. Kelly’s case, he was South Com­mand com­man­der where our great­est chal­lenges of il­le­gal im­mi­grants as well as il­le­gal drug im­por­ta­tion are com­ing from, so his learn­ing curve was zero. He could write a book on home­land se­cu­rity, which is why the pres­i­dent hired him so quickly.”

While Mr. Trump has bonded with his three Marines and a sol­dier, the group has sharp crit­ics.

Con­ser­va­tives say Mr. Mat­tis is po­lit­i­cally tone-deaf on ap­pointees and wanted to put Trump crit­ics, moder­ates or even Democrats in pres­ti­gious Pen­tagon jobs that should go to the ide­o­log­i­cally right.

Gen. McMaster is crit­i­cized for his in­sis­tence that the vi­o­lent Is­lamic State ter­ror­ist group has noth­ing to do with Is­lam the re­li­gion. His po­si­tion is re­but­ted by con­ser­va­tive schol­ars, who say cler­ics, mosques and Mus­lim teach­ings all com­bine to sup­port rad­i­cal Is­lam.

Mr. Trump gen­er­ally ad­heres to this view and has con­tin­ued to re­fer to ter­ror­ists as Is­lamic ex­trem­ists.

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