The General Problem with Trump's Cabinet Picks

December 7th 2016

Mike Rothschild

When President-elect Donald Trump told the audience at a 2015 rally in Iowa that "I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me," one might have assumed that meant he wouldn't then surround himself with high-ranking military members if elected.

Like a lot of other assumptions about Trump, though, that would be wrong.

Not only is Trump packing his cabinet with generals, he's tapping them for positions that have previously been the domain of civilians.

Previously Trump announced that retired three-star general Mike Flynn will be his National Security Adviser and James Mattis, a retired four-star general, will of his Secretary of Defense. On Wednesday, another military officer was added to the cabinet, with Trump selecting retired Marine three-star general John Kelly to run the Department of Homeland Security.

There are also rumors of generals being considered for positions not yet filled. The most-high profile of these is the possibility of David Petraeus, the disgraced general who led the command in both Iraq and Afghanistan, becoming Secretary of State.

The plethora of military officers has alarmed observers concerned about both the militarization of politics, and the politicization of the military.

Others have said the inclusion of so many generals smacks of a military government, with an anonymous source advising Trump's transition telling US News and World Report that "it begins to look like Chile in the 1970s," referring to the tyrannical reign of Chilean general-turned-dictator Augusto Pinochet. "Although individually they may be extremely meritorious," the source said, "all together it looks different."

Some have even compared Trump's cabinet to "Seven Days in May," the 1964 thriller starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglass as officers on opposite sides of a coup attempt against a peace-seeking president.

While George Washington started the trend of generals holding power, the positions Trump is filling with military officers have traditionally been held by civilians. The only general to lead the Department of Defense since World War II was George Marshall, brought in to rebuild the ragged U.S. military at the start of the Korean War. As per the National Security Act of 1947, Mattis would need a congressional waiver to hold the position, which several senators are balking at.

The job of National Security Advisor has been mostly held by civilians, while Homeland Security has never had a military head. And if Petraeus is indeed named Secretary of State, he'd be just the second general to hold the position since Marshall in the late 40s. 

Trump, by contrast, lacks any experience in either the military or government.

As for Trump's seeming disdain for the current crop of U.S. military leaders, it should be noted that at the same 2015 rally where he claimed to know more about ISIS than the generals, Trump took time to savage one of the other contenders for the Republican nomination. Trump claimed he had an "incurable pathology," akin to a child molester.

The president-elect evidently changed his mind, since that candidate is now his nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Ben Carson.