Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein gives his first "Air Force Update," during the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 20, 2016.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein gives his first "Air Force Update," during the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 20, 2016. Scott M. Ash/Air Force

What One Joint Chief Of Staff Thinks of Trump

Do the generals have too much influence? I asked the U.S. Air Force’s top military leader.

So, what is Trump like when he meets with the generals?

We’ve heard a lot of hand-wringing outside the White House Situation Room that President Donald Trump is giving too much deference to “the generals.” After all, he appointed newly retired generals as civilian secretaries of the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security, made an active 3-star general his (second) national security advisor — the first since Gen. Colin Powell — and is giving greater authority over wartime operational decisions to generals farther down the chain of command.

After Trump met with the top American generals of the ISIS War, at the warroom headquarters of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, SOCOM Gen. Tony Thomas said he was impressed by the president’s questions, and that Trump asked what winning looked like .

Trump also has met with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are outside the operational chain of command but who provide the president with military advice and the forces to execute the commander-in-chief’s orders.

“So far, my impression in the couple meetings that I’ve been in with him is: first of all, very thoughtful, good listener, and I’ve been impressed with not only the quality of the questions but also the quality of the team he’s put around him,” said Gen. David Goldfein, chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force.

“So, it’s early to tell — for all of us. We’re watching to see sort of how things settle in the administration, where power centers. We’re still watching to see and understand better how — what’s his decision calculus and how does he make decisions; how do we present best military advice to him and his team in a way that can allow them to make the decisions and present enough information that he and his team are comfortable being able to provide a decision and then give us guidance that we can execute on,” said Goldfein, Tuesday, at the Washington think tank New America’s Future of War conference. Defense One is a media partner of the event and moderated the interview with Goldfein.

‘So far, I would describe the environment that I’ve seen so far as — I think we’re all very optimistic.”

Goldfein is not the first general to adopt a wait-and-see approach to the new administration. His comments come one month after SOCOM’s Gen. Thomas described Trump’s team as in “ unbelievable turmoil ,” but with cautious optimism.

The Air Force chief gave one anecdote as example “that was pretty telling, for me.” When the Trump transition team started their process, each of the Joint Chiefs had one-on-one meetings, then a larger group discussion. In the larger group, Goldfein said one of Trump’s transition-team members began to offer advice to the chiefs. Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, the team lead, cut off the Trump staffer.

“He stopped him. He said, ‘Stop.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Hey, chief, pardon me for a minute, I’ve just got to reset the room a little bit.’” Kellogg turned to the transition team members. “He said, ‘We’re not here to offer ideas on how to mitigate risk. We’re here to listen and understand exactly what this chief and this service is telling us so that we can help craft the president’s 100-day plan.’ And I was actually really impressed with that focus.”

In other words, Trump has retired generals teaching his new national security staff how to interact with active generals.

So far, the White House has given no apparent national-security strategy direction, so there is as yet no change to the military component that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would approve and the chiefs would provide plans to execute. But Goldfein said those decisions are happening constantly in real time.

“I don’t think we’re out of order at all. In fact, planning is a journey, it’s not a destination,” he said.

Watch Gen. Goldfein's exchange with Kevin Baron at the 2017 Future of War conference in the video above.

And as for Trump’s deference to the generals? Do today’s generals have too much power?

“I do believe that it’s important for us to remember in terms of being military service chiefs and members of the military in general that it’s my obligation — I actually, during a confirmation  hearing, swore that I would give my best military advice and speak truth to power even if it didn’t agree with the administration at the time,” Goldfein said. “So it’s my obligation to give best military advice, but I have to remind myself it’s actually not the responsibility of the civilian leadership to take my advice. And that’s an important distinction.”

Goldfein said he’s aware that military options are only one part of the national-security issues and solutions White House planners must consider.

“Wall Street. I don’t think about Wall Street, from a national security — it’s not in my job jar,” he said. Same for Amtrak, airports, or the national electric grid. “When I offer best military advice, I've got to understand walking in I’m going to have this discussion with folks who have a much broader perspective with respect to national security,” he said.  “Sometimes my military advice is going to fit and sometimes it won’t, and I’ve got to understand that and be OK with that.”

Goldfein said he welcomed “creative tension,” as long as it’s a respectful dialogue. “We’re actually going to come to a better conclusion having that dialogue.”

“In terms of the — do we have too many generals, not enough generals,” he said, regarding the president’s team, “as long as we have got respectful tension, and we have the right cultures represented in the team that is bringing the president options, we’re going to be just fine.”