Throughout his administration, President Trump has misused the US military to advance his racist and discriminatory political priorities. He has used the Department of Defense as a prop to lend credibility to his “Muslim ban.” He has taken soldiers away from their regular duties and billions of dollars away from military priorities to support his border wall — a symbol of xenophobia to many. And on Monday, he threatened to deploy the US military against American citizens, who are justifiably outraged and grieving for George Floyd and the others who came before him, over the objections of state and local authorities.
The military is one of the last institutions in which the American public continues to have high confidence, which is why Trump so often turns to it as cover for his most divisive acts. In each of these cases, Trump usually manages to say the right words, but then immediately contradicts himself in his actions. For example, on Monday and immediately before Trump declared himself an “ally of peaceful protestors,” federal authorities forcibly cleared some of these very same peaceful protestors from Lafayette Park using rubber bullets, tear gas, riot shields, and batons.
The military is one of the last institutions in which the American public continues to have high confidence, which is why Trump so often turns to it as cover for his most divisive acts.
The military’s most senior leaders played a part in this farce. In a call just before the President’s remarks, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper encouraged Governors to “dominate the battlespace.” Afterward, both Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley (wearing the Army combat uniform) walked with the President through the very park where federal officers had just forcibly ejected the peaceful crowd. In doing so, they lent their credibility to Trump’s aggressive actions against the protesters peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights in Lafayette Park, and his threats to employ similar force against protesters across the country.
Secretary Esper has since distanced himself and the department from the President’s words and actions. However, this is not the first time President Trump has used military leaders to lend credibility to his most racist and divisive policies. The very first week of his administration, Trump signed his so-called “Muslim ban” in the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes. Trump had come to the Pentagon to meet with senior leaders and to sign a memorandum on military readiness, which he did. But he also signed a second document, an executive order banning entry to the United States by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. Then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, despite his opposition to this policy, was thus coopted into lending it his credibility, standing behind the President as he finalized this unconstitutional executive order.
In both cases, the President effectively used the military to lend credibility to policies and actions that violated fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Several former senior defense officials have already reminded Esper and Milley of their oaths to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” I will not belabor the point here but to say that leadership at the Department of Defense must adhere to this obligation, and by extension its obligation to Americans exercising their first amendment rights to seek redress from the government for systemic racism in the justice system, at front of mind in the days and weeks ahead.
Esper, Milley, and other defense leaders also have an obligation to protect the institution they steward from being co-opted by the President in service of political priorities that are antithetical to who we are as a nation. They must prevent the president from continuing to use a hallowed and apolitical institution as a political football. The military’s broad public support in large part comes from the fact that it is viewed as existing above the political fray; compare its 73 percent confidence rating with Congress’s 11 percent, as an illustration. Politicization of the military will be its downfall.
Susanna V. Blume is the Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security. Formerly she served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Programs and Plans to the Deputy Secretary of Defense.