WASHINGTON, D.C.  Nov. 29, 2019— President Trump has fashioned himself as a champion of America’s troops, as he did again in his remarks yesterday in Afghanistan, but his record tells a different story: one of reckless politicization of and fundamental disrespect for service members and veterans. Trump’s intervention in the military justice system to absolve accused war criminals is a case in point: rather than protect our troops, the President’s actions undermine much of what has made America’s military the greatest fighting force the world has ever known, including order, discipline, cohesiveness, and adherence to America’s core values. That Trump now plans to campaign with the pardoned war criminals speaks to Trump’s true motives and the damage he is inflicting on the armed services. 

These affronts are the latest in a persistent pattern of disrespect for the military and those who serve. From overriding the judgment of top military leaders to leaving his Mar-a-Lago cronies in charge of veterans’ care, one thing is clear:Trump has failed to live up to his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief and has consistently placed politics over the welfare and strength of America’s military and those who sacrifice in its service.

U.S. Defense and Military Voices

Former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer in his departure letter this week emphasized that the “rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries” and remarked that Trump does not share his understanding of “the key principle of good order and discipline.” With this letter, Spencer joined the ranks of former military officers and defense officials who have spoken out against Trump’s brazen disregard for the rule of law and consistent disrespect for those who serve our country in the Armed Forces. 

On Trump’s Intervention in the Military Justice System

Admiral Mike Mullen (ret.), former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: [Trump’s action] has the potential of undermining the rule of law in the military justice system completely. We can’t take the law into our own hands in war. The idea that war has changed so much that the laws are constraining is a fallacy. War has always been a mess. [Slate, 11/18/2019]

Admiral James Stavridis (ret.), former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO: President Donald Trump’s interference on military justice is without precedent in American history, and represents a disturbing disagreement in civilian-military relations…In the past, Presidents have occasionally issued pardons to individuals adjudicated by military justice (as they do for civilians), but they have never reached into the process while events are still unfolding. Doing so is deeply unsettling to military leaders, showing a complete disregard and indeed a disrespect for the military system of justice, called the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. [Time, 11/25/2019] 

General Charles C. Krulak (ret.), former Commandant of the Marine Corps: [Trump’s intervention] undermines decades of precedent in American military justice that has contributed to making our country’s fighting forces the envy of the world. [Wall Street Journal, 11/15/2019]

Mark Hertling, former Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe and Seventh Army: I guarantee you, there are a lot of SEALs out there who are saying, hey, wait a minute, this guy has gone against our training and our values, and has interrupted our teamwork in terms of the things he’s done. And this is just not good for the SEAL community…[Trump’s] just sticking up for an individual SEAL is what I would say. And this is a strategic issue in nature. You know, when you have all of the experts, the folks who are the leaders of the SEAL community, the leaders in the Defense Department, going to the President, and literally trying to beg him not to do this not to interfere with this action. It tells a story. And truthfully, that’s the biggest concern I have. President Trump, now I know I’m going to sound biased when I say this, but he is not smarter than the generals in these things because he doesn’t understand the second and third order effects, what’s going to happen to the teams inside of the organization, what is going to happen to the discipline, and the morale of the units when people think they can get away with these kind of things.

General Martin Dempsey (ret.), former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously. Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us. [Tweet, 5/21/2019]

Dr. Bradley Strawser, Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and former Air Force officer and Dr. Pauline Shanks Kaurin, professor of Leadership and Ethics at the US Naval War College: These pardons of our war criminals by Trump, and his interference in and disrespect of our own military justice system is unprecedented and should trouble all Americans. We will not pull punches — they are shameful and a national disgrace…The president’s pardon of these war criminals dishonors the noble service and sacrifice of so many others who have waged war on America’s behalf the right way. On this, none of us can remain silent. [War on the Rocks, 11/25/2019]

Paul Reickhoff, Founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and former Army infantry officer: I mean, this is a new moral low for us at a time where it seems like bad stuff is coming out every day. Perspective I think that people lose here is the military has rules. The military has courts. The military has the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This is the ultimate insult to our military to have a president jump in, the commander-in-chief jump in and say you know what, I don’t care about what you say, I don’t care about what you rule, I don’t even care if you’ve found a decision yet, I’m going to blow it all up. So it’s really a disrespect to our military, it blows up our world standing, and we’re supposed to be the good guys, right. When we go into places overseas, we’re in 40 percent of the world, we’re usually greeted as the good guys because we abide by the rule of law and the Geneva Convention. This throws all that out the window. [MSNBC, 5/21/2019]

Benjamin Haas, former Army intelligence officer and West Point graduate: Mr. Trump may believe that intervening [in military justice] pays respect to those who have served in uniform, that it shows he’s “pro-military.” But if this is his view, he’s wrong. In reality, Mr. Trump’s meddling undermines the military’s institutional values, risks endangering American service members, and disrespects the honorable service of the overwhelming majority of veterans…Mr. Trump’s intervention on behalf of those convicted or accused of conduct falling short of the military’s crucial legal requirements and moral expectations undermines the training in which the military rightly invests so much effort. It trivializes the values the military spends so much time fostering. He could be endangering United States service members deployed to combat zones by handing their enemies propaganda and recruitment material and by degrading support among local populations…Mr. Trump, to the detriment of the United States Armed Forces, remains fixated on condoning the aberrant conduct of those convicted or accused of flouting the laws of war. He should have left the military justice system to do its job. But perhaps this is not surprising, considering that Mr. Trump himself has recently advocated a war crime — the appropriation of oil in Syria. [New York Times, 11/15/2019]

Joseph Kristol, former Marine Corps infantry officer and foreign policy advisor to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) and Stephen Petraeus, former Army company commander: While no president could ever shake our pride in our military service, we fear that President Trump’s recent decision to pardon two service members involved in war crimes cases and reverse disciplinary action against another — and his stated motives for doing so — will damage Americans’ perception of the military, encouraging the view that veterans are “broken”…There is a difference between giving a soldier the benefit of the doubt and excusing unacceptable and illegal acts…we are disappointed that the commander in chief is now perpetuating the caricature of the broken veteran and endorsing a cynical view of what it means to support the troops and those who have served. [Washington Post, 11/21/2019]

On Trump’s Disrespect for Servicemembers and Politicization of the Military

Loren DeJonge Schulman, Deputy Director of Studies and the Leon E. Panetta Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security: Trump administration policies and deliberate inattention have also resulted in increased deportations for veterans and undocumented military family members and could even impact active-duty forces. As a result, far fewer lawful permanent residents are seeking military service and expedited citizenship, and they are now less likely than civilians to have their applications for naturalization approved. [Washington Post, 11/21/2019]

Gordon Adams, Professor of International Relations at American University, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, retired U.S. Army colonel and former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, and Isaiah Wilson III, retired U.S. Army Colonel, on Trump’s border deployment stunt: Electoral gain, not security, is this president’s goal. Two of us served in the military for many years; while all troops must obey the legal and ethical orders of civilian leaders, they need to have faith that those civilian leaders are using them for legitimate national security purposes. But the border deployment put the military right in the middle of the midterm elections, creating a nonexistent crisis to stimulate votes for one party. When partisan actions like this occur, they violate civil-military traditions and erode that faith, with potentially long-term damage to the morale of the force and our democratic practice — all for electoral gain. The deployment is a stunt, a dangerous one, and in our view, a misuse of the military that should have led Mr. Mattis to consider resigning, instead of acceding to this blatant politicization of America’s military. [New York Times, 11/18/2019]

Army Lt. Gen. David Barno (ret.) on Trump’s July 4th parade: This looks like it’s becoming much more of a Republican Party event — a political event about the president — than a national celebration of the Fourth of July, and it’s unfortunate to have the military smack dab in the middle of that. [Politico, 7/2/2019]

Army Major Jason Dempsey (ret.) on Trump’s July 4th parade:: Military displays like this are a favorite tactic of those who want to wrap themselves in the symbols of who we are rather than really celebrating who we are…The military is playing an ever more central role in American political life. This fits into this larger, troubling trend of identifying America itself as a military state. The Fourth of July in America should be about so much more than our military and our ability to fight off the rest of the world. [Politico, 7/2/2019]

Dr. Nora Bensahel and Lt. Gen. David Barno, Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies: Since Trump is disrupting all sorts of other norms about how U.S. presidents should behave, it may not be surprising that he and his administration are smashing the norms of military nonpartisanship as well. But the repercussions of these actions are enormous, because they fundamentally threaten the future effectiveness of the principal institution upon which the nation’s security rests. During military crises, the country’s senior military leaders must be able to deliver trusted, objective advice to elected officials. [War on the Rocks, 6/18/2019]

General Wesley Clark (ret.), former NATO Supreme Allied Commander: Trump’s actions and behavior have led service members and veterans to question whether he really understands who a commander in chief is, or what he does. [Washington Post, 11/18/18]

Alan Kennedy, Captain in the Colorado Army National Guard: I joined the Army to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and great-uncle Milt who both served in World War II. Now the same army that stopped the Nazis is being sent home to clear the way for an ethnic cleansing of the Kurds. Today the United States and Turkey have agreed to a cease-fire in Syria. But this is too little too late. [New York Times, 10/18/2019]

Illustrative Timeline

July 18, 2015: Early on in his campaign, Donald Trump claims that he “likes people who weren’t captured,” while mocking Senator John McCain’s wartime experience as a POW. The remarks are widely seen as insensitive not to just Senator McCain, but to generations of American servicemembers who have endured capture and imprisonment.

November 13, 2015: At a campaign rally in Iowa, Trump declares that he “knows more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” The remarks came in response to questions about his plan to defeat ISIS – which he has not revealed any details of while insisting it is better than what the military would do.

July 29, 2016: Trump calls retired U.S. Marine General John Allen, who prosecuted America’s war against ISIS, “a failed general.”

July 20, 2016: Trump picks a public fight with a Muslim-American Gold Star family, the Khans, whose son, Captain Humayun Khan, died serving in the Iraq War. 

January 29, 2017: Navy SEAL Ryan Owens is killed and three others wounded in Yemen in the first military operation of the Trump administration. Trump casually authorized the raid over dinner with the input of Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, rather than convene a formal meeting in the Situation Room. Trump then attempted to pass the buck to military commanders, saying “they lost Ryan.” The father of the slain SEAL, also a veteran, described the operation as “a screw-up from the start.”

July 26, 2017: Trump bans transgender Americans from serving in the U.S. military, announcing the decision via Twitter. Trump cited “the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail” even though all four service branch chiefs testified before Congress that open service for transgender patriots had not inhibited military readiness or unit cohesion.

October 4, 2017: A group of 50 ISIS-affiliated militants ambushes a group of U.S. special forces, killing four U.S. soldiers. Weeks then pass before Trump calls the families of the fallen. When he does, Trump tells the widow of the lone African-American casualty that her husband “knew what he was getting into” when he signed up.

February 6, 2018: After being dazzled by a military parade in France, Trump orders the Pentagon to prepare a military parade in Washington, D.C. The plan drew immediate bipartisan condemnation as wasteful. The head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also warned against the idea, saying, “We are very aware of anything that politicizes the military.” 

March 28, 2018: Trump nominates his personal physician, Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson, to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, one of the country’s largest and most important institutions. Trump did so despite Dr. Jackson’s lack of experience managing a large organization. Dr. Jackson ultimately withdrew his name from consideration in the face of allegations of workplace misconduct. 

July, 2018: Reporting emerges detailing how immigrant U.S. Army recruits were suddenly being discharged, often leaving their immigration status in legal limbo. Many had already taken the Army oath and had attended training or were already serving in the Reserves. 

August 8, 2018: A ProPublica report reveals that Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, Bruce Moskowitz a Palm Beach doctor who helps wealthy people obtain high-service “concierge” medical care, and lawyer Marc Sherman are directing policy for the Department of Veterans Affairs from Mar-a-Lago.

August 17, 2018: Trump’s plan for a military parade to mark Veteran’s Day is officially scrapped following a cost estimate by the Pentagon.

November – December 2018: In the run-up to the 2018 midterm election, Trump deploys over 5,000 active duty soldiers and Marines to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to a group of unarmed Central American men, women, and children seeking asylum in the United States. Estimates suggest the deployment could cost up to $200 million. 

November 10, 2018: While on a visit to France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, Trump skips the very ceremony he had traveled to attend. Scheduled to pay tribute to American sacrifice at the Battle of Belleau Wood, one of our nation’s bloodiest military victories, Trump instead spent the day in his Paris hotel room.

November 12, 2018: Only two days after skipping the ceremony in France, Trump fails to attend the customary Veterans Day presidential visit to Arlington National Cemetery for the second time as President. Trump later claimed he was “extremely busy” and expressed desire for a “do-over.” (The President was tweeting throughout the day.)

November 14, 2018: Trump urges Florida election officials to call the the mid-term election in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, decrying “large numbers of new ballots [that] showed up out of nowhere.” In doing so, Trump sought to ignore incoming provisional ballots of Florida-based troops serving abroad. Rather than respect the franchise of our servicemembers, Trump referred to the election after the inclusion of these ballots as “massively infected.”

November 18, 2018: In an interview with Fox News, Trump criticizes Admiral Bill McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL and the commander of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, as a “Hillary Clinton supporter” and suggested that Bin Laden should have been killed “sooner.” The GOP soon after echoed Trump’s attack on the retired Admiral via social media. 

November 20, 2018: On his way to spend Thanksgiving in Mar-A-Lago, Trump says he thinks active-duty troops are “proud” to be deployed to the southern border to help with the immigration effort there, even if it means missing Thanksgiving celebrations with their families. “Don’t worry about the Thanksgiving. These are tough people,” Trump says in response to a reporter’s question about the controversial border mission. 

November 22, 2018: Trump repeatedly veers off course during and following conversations intended to thank deployed U.S. servicemembers, heaping praise upon himself, railing against trade deals, attacking his 2016 presidential rival, and again siding with Saudi Arabia over our own CIA.

December 20, 2018: Secretary of Defense Mattis offers his resignation to President Trump effective Feb. 28, following Trump’s proposal to immediately withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan. Annoyed by the coverage of Mattis’ resignation letter, Trump pushed Mattis out on New Years Eve.

December 27, 2018: Trump falsely tells servicemembers during his brief visit to Iraq that he had secured for them a 10 percent pay raise, also falsely claiming that they had not received a pay increase in more than 10 years. In fact, servicemembers have received a pay increase of at least 1 percent annually for the last 30 years. 

December 31, 2018: Trump responds to criticism of his decision to withdraw troops from Syria by attacking “failed generals.” He tweeted: “I campaigned on getting out of Syria and other places/ Now when I start getting out the Fake News Media, or some failed Generals who were unable to do the job before I arrived, like to complain about me & my tactics, which are working.” U.S. troops continue to be present in Syria as of November 2019. 

January 1, 2019: After General Stanley McChrystal expressed that he would not join the Trump administration because he believes the president is immoral, Trump tweets: “General” McChrystal got fired like a dog by Obama. Last assignment a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth. Hillary lover!” 

January 17, 2019: While delivering a speech at the Pentagon, officially to announce the Missile Defense Review, Trump again uses the backdrop of uniformed servicemembers to launch partisan attacks on Democrats. He joked that he received a welcoming reception “because I gave you the greatest and biggest budget in our history.”

March 14, 2019: In an interview with Breitbart, Trump suggests his ‘tough’ supporters, including the military, might become violent in pushed, and could ‘play it tough’ which would be ‘very bad.’ Trump also claimed he has “the support of the military.” 

April 12, 2019: In March, the U.S. Department of Defense announced plans to begin discharging openly transgender service members who came out on or after April 12. Beginning then, the administration starts to forbid capable openly transgender individuals from enlisting.

May 7, 2019: Trump pardons Michael Behenna, who was convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone. Trump later expressed interest in pardoning additional military members accused or convicted of war crimes on Memorial Day before the conclusion of their trials, reportedly without consulting his senior military advisors or major veterans groups. 

May 30, 2019: The White House directs the Navy keep the warship USS John S. McCain “out of sight” during a Trump visit to Yokosuka base in Japan. A tarp was hung over the ship’s name and a barge was moved close to the ship to obscure the name. Sailors from the McCain were not invited to Trump’s speech, the only American warship in the harbor that was not invited to send sailors.

June 2, 2019: The Pentagon, in the aftermath of the USS John S. McCain incident, tells the White House to stop politicizing the military. 

June 5, 2019: During an interview on “Good Morning Britain,” Trump explains that he didn’t serve in Vietnam because he “was never a fan of that war.” In the same interview, Trump repeatedly casts the transgender ban as an economic decision, suggesting transgender individuals were signing up for service as a way to have surgical costs covered.

June 8, 2019: Immigration and Customs Enforcement failed to consider veterans’ deployment record and elevate decisions of veteran removal to senior officials in 70% of relevant cases, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. Trump administration rules have made it more difficult for immigrant servicemembers to apply for citizenship and Trump has also sought to remove protections for military families, placing a program that shields undocumented family members of active-duty troops from deportation under review.

July 4, 2019: Trump stages a self-serving military parade, further politicizing our armed forces for his own personal gain. The stunt cost taxpayers an estimated $5.4 million.

September 4, 2019: The Trump administration announces it will redirect funding allocated for Department of Defense construction projects to the border wall. Among the projects put aside to pay for this political stunt: improvements to dilapidated infrastructure for military families and upgrades for overseas DoD installations.

October 17, 2019: Trump attacks his former Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis, as “not tough enough” and “the world’s most overrated general” in an Oval Office meeting with members of Congress.

November 15, 2019: Overruling the judgment of top military leaders, Trump pardons two soldiers convicted of war crimes and restored the rank of a third who was recently acquitted on murder charges but convicted on another charge.

November 19, 2019: After Trump characterized Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman—a Purple Heart recipient and National Security Council staff member—as a ‘Never Trumper’, the official White House Twitter account attacks Vindman’s credibility and job performance.

November 24, 2019: The Trump administration fires Navy Secretary Richard Spencer for attempting to negotiate a compromise between the Trump administration and the Navy with regards to the reinstatement of a Navy SEAL.

National Security Action: We are Americans – former senior officials and policy experts, academics and civil society leaders – who have seen first-hand how the United States is stronger, safer and more respected in the world when we stand strong with our allies, pursue principled democracy, and stay true to the values that have long defined America at home and abroad. www.nationalsecurityaction.org