Donald Trump promised as a candidate to deliver fundamental change to how Washington works, and in one critical way, he is already delivering. A little more than a month into his presidency, a fundamental shift in civil-military relations is taking hold. Rather than civilian leaders checking military power, it is now military leaders, who represent one of the strongest checks against the overreach of a civilian executive.
Take President Trump’s comments on Thursday, in which he said the deportations of undocumented immigrations would be a “military operation.” Several hours later, the retired Marine general who serves as his secretary of homeland Security, John Kelly, spoke to the press. There would be, “No, I repeat no, use of military forces in immigration operations,” Secretary Kelly said. The White House later said, rather unconvincingly, that the president was merely using the word “military” as an “adjective.”
The incident was just one of several revealing discrepancies between the president and military leaders, active duty and retired, who now serve him and on his Cabinet. It also demonstrated some of the inherent risks in how President Trump understands the role of the military and his relationship to it.