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.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at email@example.com.
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