Like his predecessors, the president is discovering the allure of using the armed forces to solve problems, and like them, he’s also quickly discovering its limitations.
Three times in the last two weeks, President Trump has turned in frustration from an intractable problem and landed upon an apparently elegant solution: the military.
First it was Congress’s decision not to fund the president’s border wall in the omnibus spending bill. Trump twice tweeted that he wanted to “build WALL through M,” which most observers understood to mean “Mexico,” until The Washington Post revealed it actually referred to the military.
Next came Trump’s idea to deploy the military to the border and provide security in the absence of a wall.
Finally, Trump set off a frantic scramble Tuesday when he appeared to announce a withdrawal of American troops from Syria as a solution to the intractable conflict there. Asked whether he intended to pull troops out, Trump replied, “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.”
In each of these cases, the attraction of military action for the president is clear. He has found his agenda largely stalled in Congress, where legislators have no interest in funding the wall or any other number of signature Trump projects, and the president has shown neither the interest nor the patience to lobby them. Even working through executive-branch processes has not produced the results that Trump wants, as courts have blocked some of his most treasured moves, especially his Muslim travel ban.
The military, however, seems to offer something more akin to the experience that Trump enjoyed as the chief executive of a privately held company, where he could make a decision and see it quickly implemented. As commander in chief, he has authority over the military, and the military is, at least in theory, better equipped to respond quickly and efficiently to orders than the rest of the government. What each of these cases has shown, however, is that even the military doesn’t offer a frictionless tool for evading political and practical reality.
Trump is hardly alone among presidents in turning to the Pentagon as a method of acting when other means wear out. Dog-wagging and jingoism make military deployments an alluring option for any president, especially one who is struggling in Congress, opinion polls, or both. President Obama became quickly enamored of drone strikes. President Clinton bombed the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Sudan. President Reagan invaded Grenada. Presidents at the ends of their terms tend to concentrate on foreign affairs, sometimes at the barrel of a gun, once they’ve achieved all they can domestically.
What is unusual about Trump is how quickly he has landed on the military as his silver bullet, and the range of cases in which he has employed it.
The prehistory of this impulse began before he took office. In assembling his team, Trump hired several retired generals, and he interviewed a range of current and former generals and admirals for top jobs. This seemed to serve a dual purpose. It both satisfied Trump’s appreciation for a martial aesthetic and for the majesty of a uniform, and it brought to him prospective lieutenants with a strong sense of can-do spirit and duty, unlike some of the civilians who had already written off working for Trump.
The inflection point came in April 2017, when Trump ordered missile strikes on Syria. This was widely interpreted as a major reversal. During the campaign, he had offered a sort of non-intervention, complaining about the expense of nation-building overseas and preferring to spend money domestically, although a broad reading of candidate Trump’s statements would indicate an aversion to lengthy occupations, not to bellicosity per se. (There is even a caveat to this caveat: his suggestion that the U.S. should have taken Iraq’s oil, a vast colonial project.) In any case, the strikes won Trump widespread acclaim, including from centrist and establishment pundits who portrayed the strikes as signs of more realistic engagement with the world, or even an indication that Trump was becoming “presidential.” (This even though the strikes proved to be hastily ordered and not connected to any broader strategic purpose.)
The lesson must have been clear to Trump: Ordering military action gave him a chance to quickly and prominently produce results, and it would earn him praise from a press that otherwise detested him. Since then, he has become fond of talking up the power of the armed forces.
Famously, Trump lobbed a vague but ominous threat of “fire and fury” at North Korea in August 2017, one of many times when he rattled the American saber in Pyongyang’s direction. These threats were more or less in the mainstream of American foreign policy, although he made them more explicit than other presidents, and it’s not clear the U.S. has any particularly attractive military option in North Korea.
Less famous and much stranger was another August 2017 mention of the military. “We have many options for Venezuela,” he said. “And by the way, I am not going to rule out a military option.” This rattled many people. There had been no previous discussion of invading Venezuela, and for good reason: Although Caracas has often directed inflammatory rhetoric at the U.S., its economic and political crisis is a domestic one and poses no real threat to the United States.
Trump quickly dropped any discussion of sending troops to Venezuela, but the abrupt threat would prove to be an augur of the three more recent cases. Each of them seems to have come about without much consultation with advisers, and each has quickly proven to be more complicated than the president must have hoped.
The suggestion of funding the wall via the military apparently grew out of Trump’s anger at the omnibus spending bill, which did not fund the wall as he hoped. That bill did, however, increase military spending, which Trump celebrated and offered as a rationale for not vetoing the bill. Within days, he began his strange campaign to fund the wall through the Pentagon budget. As my colleague Priscilla Alvarez reported, it doesn’t really work that way. The defense budget is allocated to specific projects, rather than existing as a massive slush fund that the executive branch can direct as it sees fit, meaning that funding the wall would likely require congressional involvement. Of course, if Congress wanted to fund the wall, it would have done so in the first place.
Hence the next idea: send the military to guard the border until the wall is built. Or something.
“We are going to be doing some things—I’ve been speaking with General Mattis—we’re going to be doing things militarily,” he said, referring to the defense secretary. “Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military. That’s a big step. We really haven’t done that before—certainly not very much before.”
Insofar as this has not been done, that’s because it may be illegal; insofar as it is legal, it has already largely been done. Initially, this appeared to mean the U.S. Army, but while the armed forces can assist in law enforcement, it’s not clear that a more or less permanent deployment to guard the border would be legal. What would be legal would be deploying the National Guard—and in fact Presidents George W. Bush and Obama did that on the border. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday indicated that’s what Trump intended to do. Such an action will require cooperation with state governors, who command and control the guard, and the troops can’t make arrests, act as police, or use force. In other words, it’s not the simple, unencumbered maneuver Trump intended.
Also on Tuesday, Trump told reporters of his apparent plan to remove troops from Syria. As my colleague Krishnadev Calamur explains, that was confusing in part because the administration has been laying out a strategy of continued, if limited, engagement in Syria. As Trump spoke, his envoy for fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, was elsewhere in Washington, telling an audience, “We are in Syria to fight ISIS, that is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we’re going to complete that mission.”
Wednesday morning, the White House released a tortured statement reconciling the two approaches, saying that on the one hand, the U.S. will stay until the mission is over, but that on the other it believes the mission will end soon. The simplest way to read this is that Trump spoke out of frustration about having troops on the ground, but was talked down by aides who convinced him he couldn’t simply yank them out on the spur of the moment.
That’s the harsh reality that Trump is learning: It’s not easy to just uproot troops once they’re on a mission, just as it’s not as easy as just ordering troops to the border, or simply deciding that the Pentagon has enough billions around to build a massive wall. Superficially, it is simple to send the military in to solve a problem. In practice, however, domestic problems are just that, and no mobilization of U.S. Army divisions can patch over political divisions.