Trump’s generals add stability to administration

With President Trump on a “working vacation” at his New Jersey golf club and with Congress on its summer recess, there’s hope for at least modest relief from the political chaos that has dominated his first six months in office.

Some legislators continue to consider resurrecting the failed fight to repeal and replace Obamacare. Others remain focused on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and any coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign. Lawmakers from both parties have taken steps to shield Mueller from possible firing by Trump.

In the meantime, the latest North Korean tests of ICBMs capable of reaching the eastern United States have heightened nervousness at home, especially with an inexperienced, bellicose talker in the Oval Office (or wherever he temporarily hangs his hat).

Trump fired governmental rookie Reince Priebus as his White House chief of staff, and replaced him with retired Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, a long overdue move that was reassuring. Both in draining the swamp of the administration’s amateurs and in bringing veteran military wisdom to the Oval Office, Kelly’s appointment has been widely welcomed.

He joins two other similarly experienced military men to fortify the administration’s policy strategy, which to date has been shaped by Trump’s bluster and muscle-flexing in Madison Avenue mufti.

Trump’s national security adviser, former Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, early on replaced retired Gen. Michael Flynn, fired for lying about his connections with the Russians. McMaster in turn has been attacked by ultraconservative groups for dismissing some of Flynn’s hires, but Trump did not intervene.

Equally notable in Cabinet meetings is retired Gen. James Mattis, the secretary of defense, regularly introduced enthusiastically by the president by his nickname of “Mad Dog.” So far at least, Mattis has appeared to hold himself on a tight leash, as befits a prudent civilian subordinate.

Having an administration heavy in advisers of strong military experience is seen as potentially a restraining force on the commander-in-chief, but it hasn’t always been the case.

Under President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former general who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War, put his impressive public record in military affairs on the line before the United Nations Security Council in late 2002. He vouched for Bush’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Powell at great length professed he had solid evidence that Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein had them. But he presented only illustrations of mobile laboratories alleged to be making WMDs, not photographic proof of their existence.

The U.S. military boasted then of having the capability of providing indisputable evidence via long-range aerial surveillance, as seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. After Bush had ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it became clear that no WMDs had been found. Powell later wrote that his UN testimony was the worst “blot” on his lifelong public service record.

Still, in the current circumstances, the presence of Mattis, McMaster and Kelly in the Trump inner circle lends some reassurance of professional advice. They are said to have direct access to and the ear of this president, whose only semblance of military training and experience was at a private military academy.


Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at