January 18, 2019

President Trump's Dangerous Civil-Military Relations Precedent: Canceling Military Support for Congressional Travel

Dakota S. Rudesill


Lost in the food fight narrative that has dominated public discussion of the battle between President Trump and House Speaker Pelosi over the partial government shutdown was a disturbing development late yesterday: The President made political use of the armed forces.  He announced that the Speaker’s planned visit to Brussels (NATO headquarters) and Afghanistan “has been postponed,” a delay he could impose because she and her congressional colleagues – as is longstanding practice – would rely on military logistics.

Congress and the public should refuse to tolerate this latest, serious violation of American norms of civil-military relations.

People who have been following the shutdown fight know the context of the President’s decision.  In the months since Democrats won control of the U.S. House in November’s elections, the President has been claiming that there is a crisis at the southern border that requires the immediate appropriation of funds (the current White House figure is $5.7 billion) for completion of a border wall.  This is despite data showing border crossings are down dramatically, warnings that the wall would be a readily evaded new Maginot Line for committed border crossers, no sense of urgency to fund it when Republicans for two full years controlled all branches of government, and the advent of a partial government shutdown that has sent hundreds of thousands of public servants – including at agencies that secure the border – home without pay.  The President has threatened to declare a national emergency and order the military to build the wall.

On Jan. 16, Speaker Pelosi, citing security difficulties due to the furloughs, sent a letter to the President suggesting that he submit his State of the Union address in writing (a tradition until well into the 20th Century) or delay it until the shutdown has ended.  The next day, Trump responded with his own letter, informing the Speaker that she was the one who would suffer a delay: her travel to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan was off until the shutdown ends.  The President dismissed the Speaker’s official travel as “public relations,” invoked a shutdown that does not include the Defense Department, and paternalistically advised her that “it would be better if you were in Washington negotiating with me.”

Of course, everyone knows what is up.  The President is escalating the political fight in terms of intensity, and scope.  The President is using the military as a political chess piece and pulling its logistical support to Congress as a gambit.

The President has the constitutional authority to order the Air Force not to conduct particular operations, in this case ferrying particular government officials.  But this use of the President’s Commander in Chief authority remains an abuse of authority.

Trump’s bootstrapping the armed forces into his political fight violates longstanding and profoundly important American norms of civil-military relations.  Most notable is the exclusion of the military from partisan politics.  For its part, the military serves the Constitution and the country and does not take sides in factional politics or elections.  Unlike the Roman Emperors who were often on the minds of the nation’s founders, American presidents have no Praetorian Guard as their personal armed posse.  (And for good reason: The praeteorians and other politicized soldiers inevitably started picking leaders who promised payouts and killing officials who fell out of their favor).  American soldiers can vote and opine in their personal capacity on policy matters, but tradition and Defense Department regulations restrict partisan activity.  Presidents, for their part, refrain from ordering the military to do anything partisan.

Longstanding civil-military norms have been at the root of the Pentagon’s so far successful resistance to Trump’s instruction to stage a Red Square-style military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.  The nonpartisanship and independence of the military are also behind deep discomfort within the military with Trump’s partisan speeches to uniformed personnel (to include telling troops to lobby Congress for his agenda), the President’s possessive references to “my generals,” and suggestions the military will be ordered to execute the President’s campaign promise to build a wall on U.S. soil, instead of civilian authorities.

To be sure, elected officials of all stripes and in both branches like to show support for the troops and veterans.  But signaling appreciation to military personnel who sacrifice for our country is a profoundly different thing than politicians telling the military to do something unusual, or to not do something usual, in support of partisan political maneuvering.

That is exactly what happened here.  The military has long provided logistical support to both elected branches of government when senior officials travel (indeed, I flew “mil air” myself with my Senator boss), without regard to party or the politics of the day.  Trump’s latest norm violation transgressed that tradition.  The message is unmistakable: This President is willing to use the armed forces for political purposes.  In the face of this very worrisome precedent in civil-military relations, an amply funded Defense Department, and in view of his wife’s reported use of “mil air” to fly to Trump’s Florida golf resort the very same day, the stated rationales in Trump’s letter lack credibility.  We all know the score.

If the President does not recognize his error, Speaker Pelosi and the House have options.  The President may tend to treat the military like his corporate subsidiary or personal palace guard, but the Framers gave Congress sweeping power in the Constitution.  Congress can reorganize the federal government at will, and “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.”  Congress has plenary “power of the purse.”

If the President’s flimsy rationales for denying military logistical support to congressional Democrats are tied to funding and business in Washington, then Speaker Pelosi could reasonably respond that the President’s self-dealing vacation travel to Trump resorts is done, too.  And, along the way Congress will do some “good government” legislating that broadly applies, not just to this President and this moment.  The Speaker could stipulate that the House will not approve any appropriations bill that does not bar federal funds for any federal employee to visit any property they own, other than a single declared domicile.  The President and other senior officials who for personal security and national security reasons require government logistical support could travel home “in the bubble,” but should not be permitted to use official business to drive public revenue to their private businesses and properties.

Of course, this should be obvious.  Of course, the President and Speaker should not be grounding each other.  But here we are.  Our overheated political culture that mindlessly partisanizes everything, the President’s norm shredding and authoritarian tendencies, and norm erosion in Congress in recent years are sensationalizing, debasing, and discrediting American governance and public service.  Service members and public employees are being used, and the public trust abused.  Vital guard rails, including longstanding norms of civil-military relations, are being breached.  Public officials and the American people must demand the return of self-restraint, compromise, and respect for non-partisan norms as powerful forces in American politics and governance.