Last week’s media chew toy involved the number of former generals President-elect Donald J. Trump has nominated for his cabinet. The ABC News website announced Trump “would have the most generals in the White House since World War II.” What is that near-record number? Two. Yes, a whopping two among 14 announced cabinet-level picks.
Trump has nominated retired Gens. James Mattis to be his secretary of defense and John Kelly to head Homeland Security. That puts the number of former generals on a par with former doctors, Tom Price for Health and Human Services and Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development.
If Trump chooses former Gen. David Petraeus to become his secretary of state, the number of former brass would spike to three. Trump also has chosen three attorneys for his cabinet — would-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Labor Secretary Andrew Puzder and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt. I have heard no complaints about the number of attorneys.
Attorney and Afghan vet Tom Umberg told me he would add Trump’s national security adviser pick Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn because of the access he will have. That method would bring the total to three.
So why is this a media story? One reason is that Trump’s military picks are recent retirees. Congress has to pass waivers to allow former brass to serve as civilians in government before a seven-year waiting period expires. Also, during the contentious 2016 campaign, Trump frequently dismissed Obama’s generals as underwhelming.
Don’t underestimate anti-military sentiments. Democratic activist Jamal Simmons tweeted there is “something wrong” with putting generals in charge of foreign policy. Actually, Trump has named recent generals to head the Pentagon and homeland security, not foreign policy. While this country has a proud tradition of civilian control over the military, there is much to be said for giving military veterans a place at the table when Washington considers sending U.S. troops in harm’s way.
“America is in no danger of becoming a Central-American-like junta,” observed Texas Public Policy Foundation head Chuck De Vore, an Army Reserve veteran and former foreign affairs aide in the Reagan administration. “Civilians vastly under-appreciate what it takes to be a senior general, three and four star, in today’s military,” he added. You have to know how to manage large bureaucracies, inspire troops and put the right people in the right place at the right time.
Before Bill Clinton won the White House, a lack of military service counted against would-be presidents. Clinton, who benefited from a draft deferment, at least picked Vietnam vet Al Gore as his running mate. When George W. Bush ran, Democrats complained that he only served as pilot in the Air National Guard and that Bush running mate Dick Cheney enjoyed five draft deferments. That is, by the way, the same number of deferments that kept Obama veep Joe Biden out of service.
Obama is the first post-Vietnam service age executive in the bunch. The older Trump received four student draft deferments, and another for bone spurs in his heels.
With the U.S. military involved in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Africa, Americans should want officials who know the sacrifices made by those who serve and their families. Kelly’s son Robert paid the ultimate price in Afghanistan in 2010. This summer, Trump got in a Twitter war with Khazr Khan, whose speech to the Democratic National Convention highlighted the price Muslims in the military have paid in defense of this country. (Khan’s son was killed by a car bomb in Iraq in 2004.)
When in reference to Khan, ABC News’ George Stephanopoulous asked Trump what sacrifices he made for America, the billionaire answered, “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.” One advantage in picking former military, Umberg noted, is that “they would never make the mistake of equating the loss of a son or daughter with working long hours building buildings.”