Trump Hides Behind the Military

While addressing Congress, President Trump turned to the gallery and pointed to the widow of a Navy SEAL killed during a botched raid in Yemen, just one way Trump exploits the military, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Consider this major disconnect. On one hand, President Trump presents a proposed budget that calls for a major increase in spending on the military, even while drastically slashing funding for huge parts of much else that the federal government does. On the other hand, his first address to Congress says almost nothing about foreign policy and provides almost no explanation of what supposedly requires that expansion in the military and how it is to be used.

Carryn Owens, the widow of Special Forces soldier William “Ryan” Owens who died in a botched raid in Yemen and was praised by President Trump in his Feb. 28, 2017 speech to a joint session of Congress. Carryn Owens was in the gallery during the speech. (Screen shot from

Conspicuous by its absence is a strategic rationale from this administration that lays out how an expanded U.S. military would be part of a larger, well-thought-out foreign and security policy.

There is not, in fact, a sound rationale for such an increase in the U.S. military budget, which already is larger than the budgets of the next seven biggest military spenders combined, including potential adversaries China and Russia.

As veteran defense budget expert Gordon Adams observes, the U.S. military is not unready and not “hollow,” and threat is not driving the proposed budget increase. Adams writes, “If readiness is defined as forces ready to do battle in central Europe, which it still largely is, then we don’t have that and, arguably, don’t need it, either. But if readiness is defined as forces that can be used where they are being used — in regional theaters, in small numbers, as part of counter-terror/counter-Islamic State operations — then we have the most ready force we’ve ever seen.”

We all know there is a bigger and longer story to this beyond Donald Trump, and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain, among some others, favors an even bigger increase in military spending. Lest we forget, back during Barack Obama’s administration, amid much deficit hawk-squawking from Congressional Republicans and threats from them to shut down the government or default on debts, a budget “sequester” that imposed new limits on military and non-military spending alike was used as a way out of the obstruction and an incentive for members to agree on an ultimately still elusive budget compromise. My, how long ago that seems, and how easily it is forgotten.

But as with almost everything else that Donald Trump says and does, the best explanations center on how, with this narcissist, it’s all about him. He likes to boost the military, and associate with the military, because the military is the most conspicuously strong thing America has, and some of that strength will appear to rub off on him.

Columnist Frank Bruni captures some of this when he writes, “Why do I get the sense that fighter jets are Donald Trump’s biceps, warships are his pectorals and what he’s doing with his proposed $54 billion increase for the Pentagon is flexing?  Maybe because that’s a strongman’s way. Maybe because so much with him is preening. Or maybe because so little of his military talk adds up.”

Bruni’s metaphor of body parts is appropriate because the personal needs of Trump that are involved are essentially the same ones that underlay his concern with other body parts during the primary campaign.

Exploiting the Uniform

A further purpose involves Trump’s status as the only U.S. president to enter office with no prior public service, not even as a private in the army. So this is a gap for which he needs to compensate. He surrounds himself with those from the profession that is most associated in American eyes with selfless public service. Even more so than budget proposals, his appointment of a disproportionate number of what Trump calls “my generals” to senior positions serves this purpose. (An admiral whom he asked to join the group understandably declined.)

Retired Marine General James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to become Secretary of Defense.

Trump is effectively wrapping himself in these officers’ uniforms in the same way the flag is sometimes used for such wrapping. Trump wanted Michael Flynn to work in uniform as national security adviser until Flynn pointed out that he couldn’t because he was retired from active duty.

Visibly embracing the military is for Trump a substitute, not an accompaniment, for rigorous thinking and questioning about how that military is to be used. As with most other things involving Trump, the show is more important to him than the substance.

That is another way in which the association with the military exploits the colloquial and respectful, rather than critical, way in which most Americans regard the military. Most fans at the ball park do not think strategic and rigorous thoughts about use of the military when they participate in honoring service members in attendance. Most air travelers probably do not think such thoughts as they wait for active-duty military members to board the plane ahead of them. And as president, evidently Trump does not think such thoughts either.

The lack of rigor in thinking in the Trump administration about use of the U.S. military extends to specific decisions as well as to overall strategy — at least given the experience of the first Trump-ordered operation in which a member of the U.S. military was killed in action: a raid in Yemen in late January. The decision process leading to the order to launch the raid was disjointed and perfunctory — a far cry from the thorough process that proceeded such decisions in the Obama administration, but consistent with the haphazard approach to executive orders on other topics during the first month of Trump’s presidency.

Ducking Responsibility

The aftermath of that raid has illustrated some other things about Trump’s use of the military — “use” in this instance referring to what serves Trump’s personal purposes, rather than to any larger political-military question about serving U.S. interests. Being seen as deferring to military expertise and judgment absolves Trump from any accusation of acting on his own whims, while shifting blame for failure even when the decision that most matters has to be taken at the presidential level.

The Pentagon, headquarters of the U.S. Defense Department, as viewed with the Potomac River and Washington, D.C., in the background. (Defense Department photo)

In an interview with Fox News after the raid, Trump washed his hands of any responsibility for the death of the Navy SEAL who was killed in the operation, saying it was “the generals,” who “are very respected,” who “lost Ryan.” This, too, has already become a pattern with Trump, who doesn’t hesitate to claim credit for business decisions and trends that began months ago and all sorts of other things he had nothing to do with, but has no awareness of the sign about buck-stopping that Harry Truman kept on the presidential desk when it comes to accepting responsibility for things that do not go well.

Trump’s handling of the aftermath of the Yemen raid continued in his address to Congress, which included a treacly and exploitative reference to the SEAL’s death as one more way to try to get some dust from, in words from the speech, “the heroes who wear our uniform.”

We should have extra sympathy for the widow of Chief Owens, not only for the death of her husband but also for being used as a prop and having to struggle to keep her composure during this part of the presidential performance.

Trump quoted “our great General Mattis” about what a success the raid supposedly was. Nothing was said, of course, about the fallen serviceman’s father — himself a military veteran — questioning the wisdom of the raid, and apparently doing so with good reason in terms of how much good the raid actually did or did not do.

Trump even applied to this episode the standard for success or failure he usually applies to anything: how much here-and-now expression of support he sees and hears from an audience. In an ad lib comment, he said that Chief Owens was looking down and “he is very happy because I think he just broke a record” — an apparent reference to the length of the applause in the House chamber. One cringes in wondering what the widow must have been thinking at that point in the show.

We are barely at the beginning of Donald Trump’s very personal use of the U.S. military in his role as commander-in-chief. As troubles in his presidency mount and with them so do his needs to compensate, distract, or rationalize, the potential for uses of that powerful instrument that can be far more damaging will also increase. Upping the military budget probably will only increase the temptations for him to use the military that way.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

30 comments for “Trump Hides Behind the Military

  1. J'hon Doe II
    March 6, 2017 at 14:33
  2. J'hon Doe II
    March 6, 2017 at 13:05

    “Sounds like an apt characterization of entrenched foreign policy prerogatives and “missions.” Since when have promotion of democracy and human rights been policy priorities?”

    “herald” in American English
    See all translations

    verb US ? /?her·?ld/
    to announce or signal that something is approaching:
    The trade agreement heralded a new era of economic development.

    The part of harbinger is played by NYT columnist/reporter Linda Miller

    Scott Ridder played the herald/examiner and true herald.

  3. March 6, 2017 at 08:51

    This column by Paul Pillar makes some good points about Trump’s lack of character & the bloated military budget, but it contains a major, unforgivable omission. The Navy SEAL raid against the village in Yemen in January was Trump’s first impeachable war crime. Trump personally murdered over 30 innocent civilians by signing off on that raid. If we don’t impeach this war criminal asap, he will order more terrorist raids in the future.

  4. J'hon Doe II
    March 5, 2017 at 16:35

    I’m sorry Gregory, but Trump’s tropes stink of basic banality.
    He is a sick narcissist, selfish to the core, completely empty of human empathy.

    To wit : Launch of major State Department human rights report is low-key

    In a possible sign of things to come, the State Department gave a decidedly low-key launch Friday to its annual report on human rights worldwide.

    President Trump has indicated that promoting democracy and human rights will not be his administration’s top foreign policy priorities.

    Tillerson, in his Senate confirmation hearing, alarmed some activists when he declined to label some countries with notorious human rights records as abusers.

    The Human Rights First advocacy organization said in a statement that the failure to put a public face on the report’s release was “another troubling indication that the Trump administration intends to abandon U.S. leadership on human rights and universal values.”

    This is the 41st year that the report, compiled through the work of hundreds of U.S. diplomats the world over, has been released. It is often used as guidance for congressional decisions on the distribution of foreign aid — something else the Trump administration is considering cutting back.

    • Gregory Herr
      March 5, 2017 at 18:46

      Selfish to the core and completely empty of human empathy? Sounds like an apt characterization of entrenched foreign policy prerogatives and “missions.” Since when have promotion of democracy and human rights been policy priorities? If occupations, sanctions, vile dirty wars, and drone assassinations reflect universal values, then I think we need to find a new template.
      I’m not about defending Trump’s virtue…he may yet prove to have none…and I understand the need to hold this new Administration accountable. But our problems didn’t start, and don’t end, with Trump.

  5. tony
    March 5, 2017 at 13:46

    That was total pandering by Trump.

  6. mike k
    March 4, 2017 at 18:59

    Donald Trump is the essence of the sick, evil, rich tyrant. I pray every night for the sake of all that is good and true on Earth, that he be removed from the presidency. I invite everyone who loves our world to join me in this sincere wish, whether you are religious or not.

    • Zachary Smith
      March 5, 2017 at 02:05

      I pray every night for the sake of all that is good and true on Earth, that he be removed from the presidency.

      Are you aware of the consequences of your devout prayer getting answered?

    • Gregory Herr
      March 5, 2017 at 12:11

      I’m sorry mike, but Trump doesn’t really qualify as the “essence” of sick and evil when so many much more outstanding examples abound. If you think of him as the problem, you need to look wider. If Trump is railroaded (extralegally, imo), and Pence ascends, then where will we be?

  7. mike k
    March 4, 2017 at 18:46

    We live in a time where either we serve capitalism (greed), war (violence) or we serve sharing, peaceful cooperation, and care for all life. Do not kid yourself that there is any gray zone between those choices. Your value as a human being depends on how you make that choice and live it.

  8. J'hon Doe II
    March 4, 2017 at 14:39

    Yemen, a tiny nation bombed to smithereens and now facing famine through blocked ports.
    How can there possibly be any more “viable targets” left to destroy?
    What can be the overall objective but to “wipe Yemen off the map”.

    Or are we trolling for a pathway to Iran, the next designated/designed victim of our ravenous warmongering ?

    • Bill Bodden
      March 4, 2017 at 15:04

      What can be the overall objective but to “wipe Yemen off the map”.

      A parallel lunacy prevailed during the first world war when day after day generals ordered their troops out of their squalid trenches into hails of bullets sprayed from the enemy’s machine guns causing thousands of men to die to gain a few yards that would be lost the next or following day. At dawn on November 11, 1918 the generals learned an armistice would be signed at 11:00 am that day. Nevertheless, they, especially American generals Pershing and MacArthur, and the French insisted on their men fighting until the last minute so that more men would die in vain in the last hours of the war to end all wars. But this wasn’t enough for the American egomaniacal generals. They wanted to take the war across the Rhine into Germany despite millions of people already having lost their lives to death and shell shock in the past four years of slaughter. Then in the “peace” negotiations, the French, in particular, pushed for onerous conditions against Germany that set the stage for Hitler’s rise to power and the Second World War.

  9. March 4, 2017 at 14:24

    I believe war is a disease:
    “This disease has been known to infect the minds of so-called “honourable” and “right honourable” politicians. Some have even called it “noble.” It gives them a sense of power and control and some feel it helps their chances of re-election. Therefore, they spread this disease by forming coalitions with other diseased politicians of similar mindset.”
    [read more at link below]

  10. Bill Bodden
    March 4, 2017 at 14:12

    Combine the military budgets of the U.S. and declared allies and you account for nearly 60 percent of the world total against 13 percent for China and 4 percent for Russia. (Source: SIPRI)

    However, if you consider past performances that financial advantage won’t be of much help. With a budget a fraction of the U.S. military’s and its allies’ in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese army prevailed. Similarly, in Afghanistan with another gross imbalance in funding, the Taliban and assorted allies have the U.S. and NATO bogged down in a quagmire. After the shock and awe won the battle for Iraq, local militias made continued occupancy for the U.S. and its British poodles untenable.

  11. Bill Bodden
    March 4, 2017 at 13:49

    The decision process leading to the order to launch the raid was disjointed and perfunctory — a far cry from the thorough process that proceeded such decisions in the Obama administration, but consistent with the haphazard approach to executive orders on other topics during the first month of Trump’s presidency.

    This raid on Yemen was, in addition to a failure, an act of war. For those reasons shouldn’t the upper levels of civilian and military leadership not, at least, be kicked out of the Pentagon?

    • Joe Tedesky
      March 4, 2017 at 14:05

      Bill all due respect to your well founded comment, but I do believe a medal ceremony is more of what we may expect to see. This comment of mine is based on past practices, so bring up the Marine Band, and invite the spouses, because an award ceremony is about to begin.

    • Sam F
      March 4, 2017 at 14:49

      If they acted on prior orders or none, that is true. Apparently Trump approved it after a sales pitch at mealtime. But as the US is the only country to legislate a military attack on the Hague if its military personnel are prosecuted, it can go one marauding until isolated militarily and embargoed into poverty. No one will miss the US in world affairs in 20 years.

  12. Zachary Smith
    March 4, 2017 at 13:22

    I believe I disagree with the first part of this essay, for it’s my opinion the US Military to a great degree is a “paper tiger”. Yes, it’s true that we’re throwing money at the “defense” department, but the net effect too often resembles replacing the fuel in a coal plant with baled $20 dollar bills

    Zumwalt-class destroyer – unit cost over $4 billion dollars. The recently cancelled 155mm ammunition for this thing was at least $1 million dollars per round. All the ship is really good for is to burn through the “defense” money and enrich Big Weapons.

    That the US is still building monster aircraft carriers is another insanity. The planes they carry have a much shorter range than the WW2 Japanese Zero, and the big ships will be sitting ducks if they get anywhere near the coast of a competent enemy.

    I agree more giving the “defense” department more money is a complete waste, but Trump obviously doesn’t know any better. He must rely on “experts” who have spent their entire careers in the screwed-up military we have. They don’t know any other way, either.

  13. J'hon Doe II
    March 4, 2017 at 13:02

    As Mr Trump ‘hides behind the military’, the Very Real Threat to We The People is the Koch Brothers’ oligarchical takeover of these United States. As we focus on military, Russia, and/or “fake news” issues the Koch’s are buying their way into control of our government. This is the hovering diffusive malevolent threat in America.


    CIA Director Mike Pompeo

    Michael Richard Pompeo is the director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and former Representative of Kansas’s 4th Congressional District, where the global headquarters of Koch Industries is located.
    While serving as a Congressman, the Huffington Post described the Tea Party Republican as “the Koch brothers’ point man in the House.” Koch Industries and its employees was Pompeo’s largest contributor in each of his campaigns.
    Pompeo was tapped by President Donald Trump to be the Director of the CIA on November 18, 2016. He was confirmed by the Senate 66-32 on January 23, 2017 and sworn in that night.


    Days After Pruitt Becomes EPA Head, Newly Released Emails Show His Ties to Koch Bros. & Energy Firms

    Thousands of pages of newly released emails reveal how EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt closely collaborated with oil, coal and gas companies backed by the Koch brothers to roll back environmental regulations during his time as Oklahoma attorney general. The documents were released just days after Pruitt was sworn in as the new head of the EPA, the agency tasked with curtailing pollution and safeguarding public health. Last week, Senate Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to postpone Pruitt’s final confirmation until the emails were released, but Republicans pressed forward and confirmed him in a 52-46 vote, largely along party lines. As Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times. The trove of new documents shows how energy companies drafted language for Pruitt’s Attorney General’s Office to use to sue the EPA over environmental regulations. We speak to Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which successfully sued for the emails to be released.

    • J'hon Doe II
      March 4, 2017 at 14:00

      Madison correctly defined KOCH characteristics in this section of Federalist #10:

      Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal;
      … as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; [i.e., “citizens united”]

  14. March 4, 2017 at 12:35

    Mlore info at link below:
    “At the end of Obama’s presidency, the United States is bombing seven foreign nations – but most of the actions have been cloaked in secrecy, often supplemented by deceit. Opening the files at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department on U.S. intervention in the Syrian Civil War might explain why the U.S. plunged deeper into that morass. Pentagon-backed Syrian rebels have openly battled CIA-backed rebels. The U.S. has armed and bankrolled Al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria despite federal law prohibiting providing material support to terrorist groups….” James Bovard, January 9, 2017.

  15. March 4, 2017 at 12:32

    A “Leader’s” Legacy:

    “The destruction, death, and devastation by this “Nobel Peace Prize” president is surely a hellish legacy. Now this man is going into retirement to live in a luxury home.”…
    [read more at link below]

  16. Cal
    March 4, 2017 at 12:21

    90% of the politicians exploit the military.

  17. Sam F
    March 4, 2017 at 12:13

    This is of course all in the nature of the tyranny of demagogues over democracy, as Aristotle warned millennia ago (Politics, Book 5 Ch 10-12). They must create foreign enemies to pose as false protectors and accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty.

    We see now how the demagogues of oligarchy factions must play big bully boy to manipulate the mass media sheeple, who cower in fear of their own kind, and reject truth as the most dangerous enemy. Aristotle describes that too, and the transitions from short-lived oligarchies to tyrannies, the appeasing of dispossessed oligarchy factions, the honors for the military, the playing of faction against faction, etc..

    All of this was known to the Constitutional Convention members, but they did not foresee that economic concentrations would take over public debate and elections, deceive the people by massive scientific systems of lying, enslave the people in fear of truth, create a completely corrupt judiciary, and secret agencies far more powerful than anything in history, and thus create an enduring totalitarian system of empire.

    They believed as Jefferson said, that the tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants in every generation, which has not been done for ten generations now. It is time.

  18. Joe Tedesky
    March 4, 2017 at 12:04

    My guess is Trump’s downfall will be from within his own circle. Wayne Madsen probably got it right that the Trump Adminstration has three groups. Trump is in the first group along with Sessions, Bannon, and son in law Jared. This first group more than likely will get the ax over this Russian interference thing, and then there will be an impeachment. I said before listen to Trump then watch what his Cabinet does. Melania maybe smarter than we all know for how she is reluctant to move into the White House. For the record this isn’t what I want to see happen, but I’m afraid this is what we are watching unfold before our very eyes. My candidate loss in the Democrate primary, and yes I’m tickled pink Hillary loss, but the Donald has no friends in Washington and this is where he could use them.

    • Joe Tedesky
      March 4, 2017 at 13:46

      At a press conference during the 2016 presidential race Donald Trump said this, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.” Trump was invoking that Russia expose Hillary Clinton’s corruption. I’m not saying that this is a smoking gun, especially coming from a motor mouth such as Trump, but this is what the media is pushing as Trump being under Russian influence.

      This past week Sessions went in the box. Will this weeks news put Jared and Bannon in the same box. Ladies and gentlemen what we are watching unfold is a junta going down on this new White House. Will Trump step down for the good of the country, or will he fight to the end his impeachment? Peace, end of trade agreements, and bringing back good paying jobs, is not on the agenda of whoever it is that calls the shots in America…so therefore Donald Trump must go.

      I never thought I’d feel sorry for Donald Trump, but in someways I do. Who I really feel sorry for is us American people, and the citizens of this world.

    • Peter Loeb
      March 5, 2017 at 15:40


      Joe Tedesky and others might be interested in a recent essay
      by Jack Rasmus in Counterpunch:

      None can predict the future.

      Right now, it may be true that “Donald has no friends in Washington”
      but a more profound question is: will Donald Trump have
      “friends” in 1. Congress 2. in his “base”? One Republican
      commentator wisely observed that a Trump re-election by
      his “base” only is inconceiveable.

      Most voters (and others) share the expectation that what they
      want with passion will therefore come to pass. Democratic
      and Green Party voters share these expectations. Unfortunately
      as this writer has pointed out elsewhere, well-paying jobs in coal and
      manufacturing will not magically pop up in the US. For basic theory read:

      ECONOMY (2016).

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  19. March 4, 2017 at 11:44

    All politicians have been hiding behind the military and using them in illegal wars. Their latest diversion is blaming Russia.
    “Make no mistake “the warfare state” is big business and a blood soaked money machine for the profiteers of destruction and death that costs taxpayers trillions.”
    [Much more info at link below]

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