President Donald Trump’s flare for the unpredictable has taken a toll on his defense leaders, handing them orders and major policy shifts with little or no notice — ranging from his transgender ban, a military parade and a separate Space Force to his musings about reducing U.S. troop strength in Europe or intervening in Venezuela.
This week added the specter that another capricious decree may be in the works, when the Russian military reported that President Vladimir Putin and Trump had reached a private agreement at their Helsinki summit to join forces to rebuild war-torn Syria. Such a deal would mark a major change for the U.S. troops battling the Islamic State, who are barred by law from cooperating with Russian troops fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime.
The top U.S. commander in the region, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told reporters he has received "no such direction at this point," nor has he requested permission to do so. "I have not asked for that at this point and we’ll see what direction comes down.”
Previously, surprise directives from the commander-in-chief have demanded significant attention from top officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. And they have almost never involved what the Pentagon considers top priorities.
Former officials also say Trump’s impulsive decrees undercut the administration’s effort to reverse the White House micromanaging of the military that commanders grumbled about during the Obama administration.
Before Trump, “you certainly never had a directive coming straight from the president via Twitter," said a former senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military officials he knows. "That adds an extra layer of instability and stress to an organization that is already under a lot of stress.”
Loren Schulman, who served in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said past administrations had “a policy process where you don’t spring really big changes on the Pentagon with no warning at all.”
"My guess is that Mattis and Dunford have to spend a lot more time shepherding the development of answers to Trump’s questions and then dealing with the press fallout,” added Schulman, who’s now with the Center for a New American Security.
Schulman noted that Obama also caught his top Defense Department leaders off guard in 2011, when he announced major cuts to the military budget just months after a long-scheduled Pentagon strategy review. “This was a total shock” to the defense secretary at the time, Robert Gates, whom Obama informed just a few days before giving a speech on the cuts, Schulman recalled.
But Trump has thrown out a series of curveballs to his commanders. He demanded the ban on transgender troops via an early-morning tweet, for example, and offered the Pentagon little or no notice before announcing his Space Force and canceling military exercises in South Korea.
Pentagon officials downplayed the unusual nature of Trump’s orders.
A spokesman for Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, downplayed the unusual nature of Trump’s orders.
Dunford’s “focus and that of the Joint Staff is on supporting their priorities in a timely and effective manner, regardless of whether it’s a long-standing issue or emerging requirement,” said Col. Patrick Ryder, Dunford’s spokesman. “This is what the Joint Staff exists to do.”
Tom Crosson, a spokesman for Mattis, said that “the secretary’s priorities for the department are aligned with the administration."
Here are some of Trump’s distracting directives and how the Pentagon has responded to them.
In January, Trump told top military leaders during a visit to the Pentagon to start planning a parade in the nation’s capital to showcase U.S. military might.
The Pentagon has since picked Veterans Day weekend to hold the parade, which the White House budget director has told Congress is expected to cost up to $30 million. (CNN recently reported a figure of $12 million.) It’s unclear where the money will come from, and Trump’s order came too late for parade funding to be addressed in the defense budget.
Democratic lawmakers have sought to block the parade, which some say would be an unnecessary expense. One House Armed Services Committee member, Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Texas) introduced the memorably named PARADE Act—“Preventing the Allocation of Resources for Absurd Defense Expenditures.”
Mattis dodged a question early this year when asked whether the parade would divert resources from other priorities. He said only that the order reflected “the president’s respect, his fondness for the military."
Troops in Europe
The most recent hot potato Trump has tossed to the military came last month, when he reportedly told military leaders he was surprised at how many troops the United States has based in Germany (some 35,000) and questioned whether so many were really necessary, a development first reported by The Washington Post.
The Pentagon is reviewing the size of its troop presence in Germany, but it says it is doing so only as part of routine assessments that its overseas headquarters conduct. It says it has not received any formal request from the National Security Council to draw up troop-cut plans.
The prospect of White House-mandated troop cuts in Germany has alarmed European allies. But it has also raised worries about disruptions to ongoing U.S. counterterrorism operations, especially in Africa, many of which are run out of Germany.
A Venezuela war plan?
In a strange turn for a president who campaigned on the promise to “never send our finest into battle unless necessary,” Trump last summer mused publicly about using U.S. troops for an entirely new mission: imposing order in the chaotic South American nation of Venezuela.
“We are all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away,” Trump said in public remarks in August. “We have many options for Venezuela, including possibly a military option if necessary."
A recent report from the Associated Press revealed that the day before his public remarks, Trump raised the issue with then-national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and other officials, briefly arguing when a surprised McMaster laid out a list of ways military action in Venezuela could backfire.
The next week, Pentagon spokesmen struggled to explain how the military was responding to Trump’s comments, saying that “standard military planning” was ongoing. “If called upon we would have a military option for the president,” a spokesman said, but no formal request had come from the White House.
A few months later, Trump shocked Latin American heads of state when he again broached the possibility.
“Rex tells me you don’t want me to use the military option in Venezuela,” the president told the leaders of Argentina, Panama, Brazil and Colombia, referring to his then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, according to a POLITICO report. “Is that right? Are you sure?”
Halting military exercises
Following his summit last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump promised to halt joint U.S.-South Korean military "war games," which he blasted as expensive and "provocative."
The president’s pledge took the U.S. military headquarters in Korea by surprise, although a Pentagon spokesman said Trump had discussed it ahead of time with Mattis. It took another six days for the Defense Department to announce what it was doing to follow through on Trump’s statement by canceling an annual exercise known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian.
Translating the president’s expansive, vaguely worded promise into a manageable policy probably took significant effort inside the military, said Lindsey Ford of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a former Pentagon official.
The lag-time between the president’s speech and the Pentagon’s announcement “says to me that there were a lot of conversations behind the scenes where people figured out how they could meet the spirit of what Trump was saying while minimizing the potential damage,” she said.
Ford added that while the military likely had various options on the shelf for delaying or scaling back exercises in Korea as part of negotiations, the suddenness of Trump’s declaration was unusual.
“Normally there’s a front-end process where [the U.S. headquarters in Korea] develop options and send them for the policy makers to think about,” she said. Instead, “they basically had to try to invent a back-end process for how you implement. That’s the chaos of how this administration works.”
During a public event last month, Trump again took the Pentagon leadership by surprise when he announced he was “directing” the military to “begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”
Trump then turned to Dunford and told him to “carry that assignment out.”
“We got it,” Dunford responded.
Trump had previously expressed interest in the idea of a Space Force of some sort. But for months, when members of the House Armed Services Committee were pushing for the establishment of a separate uniformed service focused on space, the military had been pushing back strongly — particularly the Air Force, which now has the space portfolio.
Mattis wrote to one congressman that he worried a new branch might lead to “a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations” rather than helping anything. And two military reports on possibilities for a space branch were already due to Congress at the time of Trump’s pronouncement.
But a public order from the president to his top general couldn’t be ignored.
“There is no question in our mind the direction he’s given, so we have begun that planning effort. We’re moving out smartly,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein said of the Space Force at a news conference this week. Goldfein said Trump’s attention to space had created a “huge opportunity” and a “national-level dialogue about where we’re going in space,” adding, “I love the fact that the president is leading that discussion.”
When pressed on whether he thought a separate space service is really needed, though, Goldfein demurred. “That’s part of the dialogue we’re having,” he said.
“I think the president’s comments basically silenced the opposition from the Air Force,” said Todd Harrison, director of the defense budget and aerospace projects at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Harrison predicted that Trump’s order will empower factions within the Pentagon that support the creation of a space branch, but that department leadership might “continue to oppose it by dragging their feet" and trying to “wait out the clock."
The transgender ban
The Pentagon responded in a similar way when Trump tweeted last summer that he wanted all transgender individuals banned from the military "in any capacity."
After the White House followed up the tweet with formal guidance, Mattis ordered a six-month policy review headed by his top deputy and generals from each of the military branches.
The Pentagon won’t say how much of those leaders’ time the review took up, or how much it cost.
Critics and supporters alike have characterized Mattis’ approach as slow-rolling Trump’s request to overturn Pentagon policy dating back to 2016. While the reviews were underway, the existing Obama-era policies that allowed troops to be open about their transgender status — and in some cases receive government-funded sex-reassignment surgeries — remained in place.
The review ended with Mattis largely acquiescing to Trump, recommending in a memo to the president that "persons with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria" be "disqualified from military service except under limited circumstances."
Trump followed through in March by formally ordering a ban based on Mattis’ recommendation — although that policy is now being contested in several court cases.
But the former senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the military sometimes had to move more quickly than it wanted to meet Obama’s demands, too — including on the 2016 policy that the new Trump order reverses. "Often it was social issues where Obama wanted to move more quickly than the department was prepared to, like the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and gender integration," the policy that Trump is now trying to reverse, the former official said.