DOD says it’s to save money and time. Critics say it’s to avoid conflict with the president.
Pentagon leaders nine months ago ordered a sharp clampdown on public appearances by senior U.S. military leaders and senior civilian Trump administration appointees, limits that have kept them largely out of sight — and out of trouble with President Trump.
The new rule: only one senior military leader and one civilian leader are allowed to appear at each “outside” non-government event, per day. Leaders must coordinate their appearances through a central DOD personnel management office and must seek waivers to break the one-per-day rule.
The directive has changed how defense leaders participate in nearly every kind of public event, from global policy conferences to intimate academic panel discussions to on-camera press interviews.
Pentagon reporters have known since at least last autumn that 4-star officers were being restricted from appearing together at some large events, but this is the first confirmation of the existence of an official rule.
Pentagon officials told Defense One the rule, long in the making, aimed to better coordinate speaking engagements after more and more senior officers began showing up at multi-day policy conferences such as the annual Aspen Security Forum in the Colorado resort town. Critics and several former senior defense officials said that may be true. But some also called the rule a blatant attempt to keep the military quiet and avoid drawing attention, or conflict, with the president.
“You and I both know what this is: an attempt to minimize the department’s profile to the president. Fewer speakers means fewer headlines means fewer angry tweets from the Lincoln bedroom," said one former senior military official who asked to speak on background.
Pentagon officials provided internal memos to Defense One on Tuesday confirming the existence of the restrictions. Defense One had asked the Office of the Secretary of Defense to explain why two of four senior DOD officials due to speak at Thursday’s Defense One Summit had suddenly cancelled. Charlie Summers, the defense secretary’s principal deputy assistant for public affairs, said the speakers were pulled to comply with the directive. In previous versions of the annual conference, the Pentagon had sent multiple senior leaders to be interviewed onstage.
“The Department [of Defense] shall limit participation at outside events by senior officials to one senior military and one senior civilian leader per day per event unless circumstances warrant greater participation,” reads an internal DOD memorandum from the Pentagon’s second-ranking civilian, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Signed on January 31, 2018, it went into effect the next day. The memo says the limitations are meant to “optimize travel,” conserve resources, and ensure leaders can focus on the Defense Department’s work.
One week later, the department’s Chief Management Office issued a second memo with guidelines implementing the restrictions. Each military department and agency must choose which leader to put forward on a given day, notify the CMO 30 days in advance, and wait to hear whose proposed appearance has been approved. “Minimizing the number of civilian executives attending these events is critical to conserving senior leader time,” it says. The Joint Staff that week issued its own memorandum conveying the restriction would apply to the O-10 ranks, or four-star generals and admirals, with the same language stressing "minimizing" their participation in events.
To some extent, the change began under the Obama administration, after Defense Secretary Ash Carter was rumored to have quipped about seeing so many senior officers’ jets lined up on the Aspen airport’s tarmac for one conference. Shortly thereafter, more admirals, generals, and civilian equivalents began to turn down invitations to speak at such forums, and even to cancel promised appearances. In 2016, all three 4-stars withdrew from the Aspen Security Forum’s closing panel. In 2017, several top commanders attended, but noticeably fewer than in previous years. In 2018, the number declined again in the wake of the the new restrictions.
Since the arrival of the Trump administration, DOD officials also noticeably have limited on-camera interviews with the press. Defense Secretary James Mattis has said that he and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have tried to avoid being asked on camera about Trump’s latest comments or tweets to prevent the military — and themselves — from being pitted against the commander in chief or caught in a soundbite for cable TV news to hype. After that approach drew criticism, Mattis issued an October 2017 memo urging top generals and admirals to engage more often with the media.
The military services also have struggled to find their footing in the Trump administration on public events and press engagements. In March 2017, the Navy’s top officer warned leaders about speaking too freely to the press, saying more caution was necessary to protect classified information and operational secrets. One year later, and roughly one month after the new DOD rule was enacted, the Air Force took criticism for scaling back its public engagements. The Marine Corps’ top general said at the time he was not restricting anyone. “I don’t feel that I’ve been restrained and I’m not restraining any Marines,” Commandant Robert Neller said. “I’ve never told a Marine they could or couldn’t speak.”
But Trump administration officials apparently have, and that worries former senior defense leaders.
“The disincentives to getting out and speaking more actively are that in this highly politicized environment it gets much tricker for especially military uniforms to navigate that. So, it’s a safer course of action to not get pulled into these political discussions. If you’re out there talking, you’re inevitably going to get one or more of those types of questions,” said a former senior Trump administration official.
The official called the one-per-day rule arbitrary.
Moreover, he said, “It should be considered part of their jobs to go out there and have these discussions, not only with the press so the American public knows what’s going on, but also because — they go to these things because that’s where thought leaders are and where people are discussing serious topics on national security. So who better to be involved in those than senior uniformed and civilian leaders? You can easily argue that part of their job is to go.”
“If we’re not there, somebody else is there speaking on our behalf,” he said. “If you’re not there representing your views, who is?”
Several former senior military officials said that they had never previously heard of a blanket restriction on public speaking. One recalled that there have been rare times where official travel and public engagements were limited to save money, such as during the federal government’s sequestration.
The new directive is an overcorrection, argued the first former senior military official. The Trump administration’s “micromanagement” of senior leaders has consequences, most likely in the erosion of public trust and confidence in the Pentagon.
“Nobody expects them to talk about everything they are doing. They are perfectly within their rights to be circumspect about what they share, especially with a Twitter-happy commander-in-chief,” said the former military official. “But Americans should expect to hear from senior defense officials on a routine and regular basis about how their tax dollars are being spent and about how their sons and daughters — volunteers all — are being employed on their behalf. The problem isn’t just that these officials aren’t talking to the press or giving speeches; they’re not even talking to Congress, their bankers. That sort of opaqueness does not serve the American people well and flies in the face of basic public accountability and stewardship.”
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., complained last month to the Pentagon about transparency in an op-ed in Defense One . With Democrats regaining the majority in the House in the midterm elections, Smith will become chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in January and is expected to summon more Defense Department leaders to speak.
“There is a legitimate argument to be made by senior leaders today that they need to be cautious in the public square,” the former military official continued, “lest they say anything that undermines their efforts or risks the appearance of some sort of divergence with the White House. Even in normal circumstances, there is always a delicate balance to be struck. But it doesn’t appear as if any balance at all is even being sought. The rudder has been thrown all the way over.”
“The second long-term effect this E-ring chill is going to have” — referring to senior leaders’ offices in the outer ring of the Pentagon building — “is that we’re now raising a bunch of future generals and admirals who will believe their best path to success runs through the village of ‘Shut The Hell Up,’” said the former official.
The Pentagon is also setting a bad precedent for rising military commanders who may conclude that they can remain in the shadows, unaccountable, without penalty, the former official said “After all, their bosses today are not talking to much of anyone and not suffering much of anything for it. Indeed, quite the contrary,” the official said. “That’s a dangerous, foolish concept I fear they — and we — will all come to regret.”
Price Floyd served as assistant defense secretary for public affairs during the Obama administration under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican.
“Attending an event to help educate on policy priorities would seem to be exactly what the Defense Department leadership should be doing,” Floyd said.
He also noted that the one-per-day, one-per-event rule appeared to be implemented unevenly. Defense officials still routinely appear in large numbers at events hosted at think tanks and by defense contractors or industry associations. At think tanks, defense officials usually face softer questioning than they would from reporters. The moderators often are academics or former colleagues, often of the same political party, who are sought after for their safe questions or agreeing to avoid controversial topics.
For example, Mattis made a rare appearance in a public forum in Washington on Oct. 30, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a quasi-government organization that by rule must avoid partisan and hot political topics. The hot topic that week was Trump’s dispatching of active duty troops to the Mexican border; that topic was not broached by the moderators, who selected questions from the audience.
When Dunford agreed to speak at a daylong event hosted by the Military Reporters and Editors group that week, his staff rebuffed last-minute requests to put the session on camera. Still, the joint chiefs chairman said, he insisted on keeping the engagement and took pains to underscore the media’s place in the American system.
“When you think of the role of a free press in a democracy, it’s pretty important. All you have to do is go and look at places where there is not a free press and there is not a democracy, and they’re inextricably linked,” Dunford said, adding that government workers perform better when the public sees what they do because “we have a free press and we have transparency.”
There are signs that Mattis and Dunford, at least, are loosening up just a bit. In August, they gave their first joint press conference in the Pentagon press briefing room, and public affairs officers said that they hoped such a thing would become a regular event. Previous secretaries and Joint Chiefs chairmen held such joint events monthly.
“There is often frustrations of late between the Pentagon press corps and senior brass over a lack of access. They’re real,” the Washington Post military reporter Dan Lamothe tweeted from the Military Reporters and Editors event. “But I’ll say this: Gen. Dunford is taking pointed questions today at #MRE2018 and answering both directly and passionately. Hope others take notice.”