Rise of generals in the White House

This article is more than 12 months old

The small but growing group of former military leaders are now at the heart of the Trump administration

When White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney was asked why US President Donald Trump had appointed former Marine Corps officer John Kelly as chief of staff, Mr Mulvaney had a simple explanation. "You know that he enjoys working with generals," he said.

Within this presidency, a small but growing group of former military leaders appear almost the only ones able to operate, survive and even thrive in the Trump administration. The president appears to be increasingly placing his trust in their discipline, loyalty and ability to influence and control those in his chain of command.

A triumvirate of the US' most respected generals - former Marine James Mattis as Secretary of Defence, serving army lieutenant-general H. R. McMaster as national security adviser and former Homeland Security chief Kelly - sit at the political heart of the administration.

With Mr Kelly running the day-to-day operations of the White House since replacing former Republican chairman Reince Preibus, their influence may increasingly reach well beyond foreign and security policy into national politics.

The hope of many in and outside the government is that the commanders provide a much-needed dose of sanity and experience to an administration that badly needs both. Critics, however, accuse them of risking politicising the armed services and lending credibility to a presidency that has not earned it.

The truth may be that the military officers are almost the only figures Mr Trump trusts, respects or can be reliably expected to listen to.

The US military leadership has, of course, been a fixture in the nation's broader domestic politics since the days of first US president George Washington and the Revolutionary War. World War II commander Dwight D. Eisenhower and Civil War military supremo Ulysses S. Grant were the last two to make it to the Oval Office.

Never in recent history, however, have there been quite so many armed forces figures swirling around the top echelons of power. Other former top military leaders are also gaining important roles.


Last week, former US general Anthony Zinni was named as the US envoy for resolving the diplomatic crisis around Qatar.

It is an appointment that has been broadly welcomed within the region and Washington policy environment, not least because so many civilian roles within the State and Defence departments remain unfilled.

Inevitably, some figures have become swiftly politicised.

That is particularly true for Mr McMaster - still a serving officer doing a role usually filled by a political appointee.

Under the Obama administration, those at the top of the military frequently complained that he was uncomfortable around his generals and largely avoided direct contact with them. Paradoxically, that administration was simultaneously accused of micro-managing missions, particularly involving Special Forces.

Mr Trump, in contrast, has tended to let the generals run their own campaigns. He has granted the US military much more latitude in conducting its operations and is reported to have given Mr Mattis the authority to decide whether to send more US troops into Afghanistan.

Some commentators worry that too little civilian scrutiny will be bad for the services.

Reported civilian casualties from US actions in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere have risen since Mr Trump took office, leading to concerns that the military is quietly shifting to the use of more indiscriminate force.

What may worry Mr Trump more, however, is the perception that some of his top military trio may spend much of their time apologising for him and America.

With the hash tag "#presidentMattis" trending on Twitter last week, Mr Trump may also come to worry they have their own ambitions.

If America's generals can take the credit for the Trump presidency not being a catastrophe, it is at least possible one of them may yet make it to the White House themselves.

But if they cannot, they may find themselves taking an unfair portion of the blame for whatever Mr Trump does wrong.

Peter Apps is Reuters' global affairs columnist. This article has been edited for length.

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