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Trump allegedly disparaged America’s war dead. The backlash probably won’t decide the election.

But both campaigns want the public to think the military is on their side.

- September 9, 2020

Last week, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg posted an article recounting comments President Trump made about America’s war dead. Multiple sources have now independently corroborated many of the details, although some specifics remain in question.

The story sparked a media firestorm and a reaction from Trump on Twitter. This controversy also brings back into focus the significant tension between the norm of the military staying out of partisan politics versus its often political role inside presidential administrations.

Here’s how to understand the controversy over civilian-military roles.

The military is political, but civil-military lines are more blurred than ever

Civil-military relations in the United States rest on two important norms. The first is civilian control of the military — the president and his civilian appointees, most notably the secretary of defense, oversee the uniformed military. The second is that the military steers clear of explicit involvement in partisan or electoral politics.

These norms are just that — norms — and not hard-and-fast rules. In terms of politics, my research shows presidents try to appoint top military leaders — those on the Joint Chiefs of Staff — who share their political worldviews. And as Zachary Griffiths and Michael Robinson recently explained here at TMC, military endorsements in election campaigns have increased dramatically in the last few election cycles, a trend that shows no signs of slowing even though these endorsements don’t seem to have much effect on elections.

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But the Trump presidency has blurred these lines to a greater degree than most prior administrations, as Carrie Lee recently noted here at TMC. And in June, the military’s role in Trump’s visit to a church in Lafayette Square again raised concerns about Trump politicizing the military, as Alice Hunt Friend explained.

Here’s what was so unusual about Goldberg’s source

A notable aspect of Goldberg’s article is that it relies in part on the account of an anonymous “retired four-star general.” Given that the general described stories from nearly two years ago for an article released during the home stretch of an election, it is difficult to interpret these comments as anything other than an “anti-endorsement” of Trump. My research with Peter Feaver shows that partisan activity by active or retired officers can reduce the public’s trust in the military. As Jason Dempsey notes, this instance — where an anonymous source used only his rank — represents the worst-possible case for maintaining public trust. The source used the credibility of his rank while avoiding personal accountability for his comments.

Complicating the fallout is the fact that key parts of the story mention Trump’s conversations with John Kelly — himself a retired four-star general and Gold Star father. Like former defense secretary Jim Mattis, however, Kelly served as a senior civilian political appointee in the Trump administration. This distinguishes them both from retired Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who refused to comment on the Atlantic article, citing his commitment to the military’s nonpartisan norms.

But Kelly, like Mattis, never embraced his identity as a civilian appointee and continues to cite his military past to avoid commenting on the Goldberg story. Although civil-military scholars agree that retired officers who serve as civilian political appointees can speak out, the public likely still identifies Kelly primarily as a general. As scholars Alice Friend, Loren Schulman and Phil Carter have noted, appointing retired generals to political positions blurs civil-military lines, allowing them to act politically while pretending to be above the fray of normal partisan politics.

Trump, and his critics, will try to pull the military closer in the campaign

As the response to the Atlantic article shows, both Democrats and Republicans appear certain the military is on their side. Both Trump and Joe Biden featured retired generals as speakers at their respective party conventions. Keith Kellogg — a retired lieutenant general now serving as Vice President Pence’s national security adviser — spoke at the Republican National Convention. Former secretary of state and retired four-star general Colin Powell spoke at the Democratic National Convention. In light of the trends that Griffiths and Robinson note, both campaigns are likely to try to muster as much support from retired generals as possible.

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In 2016, Trump gathered endorsements from 88 generals — but more recently he has downplayed the importance of their support. Instead, he has tried to create the perception that regular service members “love him.” Following the Atlantic story, for example, Trump retweeted a Breitbart link citing 700 veterans supporting him. Similarly, anti-Trump groups such as the Lincoln Project and Vote Vets — along with Biden himself — have highlighted veterans’ opposition to Trump.

A backlash from the military probably won’t decide the election

Over the past three years, many Trump opponents seemed confident that criticism from retired flag officers — including Adm. William H. McRaven, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Mattis and Kelly — would erode Trump’s support among the public. That does not seem to have happened. Similar efforts are unlikely to be decisive now, but could damage civil-military relations.

My research with Peter Feaver and Kyle Dropp shows that veteran endorsements do not sway partisans, although they could sway political independents — especially if they send the unexpected signal that the military opposes Trump as the Republican nominee. This influence could be important in a close, contested election. It isn’t clear, however, that even these modest effects will materialize if veteran support appears contested — as it does today.

Media outlets filter and frame the way voters will experience information about the military, just as on other issues. Coverage of The Atlantic story shows that those who support or oppose Trump are hearing different messages. Members of the administration also went on record to dispute the story and criticize the use of anonymous sources. And other service members began to share their own experiences with the president.

Most civil-military relations scholars agree that Trump has done significant damage to civil-military relations. But Trump’s violations of civil-military norms are also a consequence of broader trends. Growing partisan polarization and elevated confidence in the military as an institution have increased calls for the military to play a larger role in U.S. electoral politics. These underlying forces won’t disappear even if Trump loses.

Editor’s note: An earlier version included an incorrect statement about how FOXNews reported the issue. We regret the error.

Jim Golby is a senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin, the co-host of the “Thank You For Your Service” podcast and an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS.

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