Senior defense officials are making decisions based out of fear they will upset President Donald Trump, exposing a growing culture problem at the Department of Defense, a top Democratic lawmaker and others allege.
The charge comes as a senior Trump administration official at the Pentagon on Wednesday sent back the Navy’s recommendation on the fate of Capt. Brett Crozier, demanding a deeper investigation into his dismissal from command of the coronavirus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt.
The problem, critics say, is not that Trump is interfering in the chain of command — exerting what’s known as “undue command influence” on decisions that are meant to be adjudicated within a strict military hierarchy — but that military officials are acting based out of fear that he will.
“The president has made it clear as far as he is concerned the single most important attribute that anybody in the federal government can have is a willingness to kiss the president’s ass as often as possible,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee told reporters Wednesday morning. The notion that defense officials may act based on a desire to please the president “undermines your ability to be competent, to make decisions based on what is the right thing to do as opposed to what is going to feed the president’s limitless ego,” he said.
Smith emphasized that he has no reason to believe that Trump has directly interfered in Crozier’s case.
“I am worried about something that’s worse than that — that would be an isolated example,” Smith said. “I am worried about a culture developing along the lines of what I’ve just described.”
A former defense official who served during the Trump administration and spoke to Defense One on the condition of anonymity described the dynamic as “really dangerous.”
“I’m concerned they’re just trying to divine the way the president wants to go and that is not the way this should go,” the official said.
The controversy surrounding Crozier’s removal has centered on the chain of command, considered sacrosanct in military culture. Former Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly dismissed Crozier when a letter that he wrote warning of the risk to his sailors from COVID-19 wound up in the media after Crozier sent it to a handful of Navy officials, some of whom were not strictly in his chain of command.
But when Modly explained why he dismissed Crozier, he also said that he didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, then-Secretary Richad Spencer, who “lost his job because the Navy Department got crossways with the president” in a military justice case that became a cause celebre on Fox News. “I didn’t want that to happen again.”
Modly’s decision sparked intense controversy anyway and he ultimately resigned after delivering an invective-laden speech to the crew of the Roosevelt. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday finished an investigation into the outbreak on the ship that recommended Crozier be reinstated. He delivered the results verbally to Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday, but soon afterward news outlets reported that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley wanted to know more. Trump’s new acting Navy secretary, James McPherson, on Wednesday announced he has asked the top admiral for a “more fulsome” investigation, arguing that the first effort raised “unanswered questions.”
For onlookers, the back-and-forth has caused suspicion about whether the investigation is being politicized. Smith, citing Modly’s remarks, argued that the Navy should reinstate Crozier in order to send a clear signal to the White House that it will preserve the integrity of its chain of command. The former official, meanwhile, raised fears that the original recommendation to reinstate Crozier was itself politically-motivated.
“I’m concerned that they said, ‘Okay the president isn’t mad at this Crozier guy, so now we need to come up with an investigation that says he needs to be reinstated,” the former official said. If the Navy found Crozier was justified in sending his memo about the situation on the Roosevelt, then that would mean they agreed that he was being stymied in getting his message elevated through the proper channels within his chain of command. A properly-done investigation should expose where the chain of command failed, the former official suggested — perhaps the reason the acting secretary sent it back and demanded a deeper probe.
“This is still the military. There’s an entire chain of command. We don’t just try to divine what the guy across the river thinks. It’s going to be reviewed later — people aren’t going to want to have their name on something that was so blatantly political,” the former official said.
Trump has a history of interfering publicly in the military justice system in deeply unusual if not unprecedented ways, which critics say is a dangerous affront to military discipline.
After Trump intervened on behalf of a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes, top Senate Armed Services Committee Democrat Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in a November statement, “The White House’s handling of this matter erodes the basic command structure of the military and the basic function of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” (Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher was acquitted of murder in the stabbing death of an ISIS captive, but convicted of posing with the dead man’s corpse in Iraq in 2017.)
Trump has threatened to become involved in Crozier’s case, which has become cable news fodder. The dismissed captain is beloved by his crew and seen by some as a hero who fell on his sword to defend his ship. Others say he was rightly dismissed, arguing that the chain of command is sacrosanct and even minor violations cannot be tolerated — even if they are done with the best of intentions
“I may just get involved,” Trump said in early April, prior to Modly’s resignation. After the secretary quit days later, Trump appeared to indicate he favored retaining Crozier, while saying that Esper and the Navy would decide. “He made a mistake, but he had a bad day. And I hate seeing bad things happen. The man made a mistake.”
On Wednesday, asked if he had input for Esper on the decision, Trump said, “They’ll be seeing me at a certain point.” On Crozier, Trump repeated what he said three weeks ago: “I think he’s a very, very good man who had a very bad day. And then he wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. You know, he starts writing long memos. You can’t do that.”
The Defense Department under any president is “going to shift subtly to meet the needs of the commander in chief, as well they should,” Smith said.
“What I am worried about is that the president’s management style is how I’ve described it, and I am worried that that will make us less effective.”