Military figures are taking over Trump’s administration

Experts worry the presence of so many generals will affect how the president crafts policy.

Former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, now Chief of Staff, listens as President Donald Trump speaks. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, now Chief of Staff, listens as President Donald Trump speaks. CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

As players within President Donald Trump’s administration have come and gone, one institution has benefited perhaps more than any other — the military.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions named Gen. Mark S. Inch as the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), days after Gen. John Kelly moved from his position as secretary of Homeland Security to be White House Chief of Staff. Trump’s Cabinet at one point contained three generals —Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Lieutenant Gen. Michael Flynn, who initially served as national security adviser. That trend, experts say, is likely to shape Trump’s approach to policy.

Anytime you have a concentration of a particular type of person from a particular type of background, you are limiting the types of information and the types of perspectives that are being heard at the top level,” Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, told ThinkProgress. “That’s problematic. The president’s job is incredibly complex. The less diversity of opinion you get, the less informed decision-making you’re going to be able to do.”

But in an administration where policy-making has often come across as chaotic and muddled, diversity of opinion has arguably become unpopular. Repeated attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act have resulted in failure, as have several efforts to implement the so-called “Muslim ban.” On foreign policy, Trump has failed to develop any coherent approach to dealing with a number of issues, ranging from ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Syria to facing down North Korea’s nuclear efforts. That lack of cohesion has often been attributed to clashing opinions in the White House, where approaches to policy are wide-ranging. The solidifying presence of military brass could offer a counterpoint to that clutter, Berman noted—one in keeping with Trump’s style.


My gut is that that’s a combination of personality and a taste for hierarchy. He likes loyalty,” she said. “That’s a value that he associates, not incorrectly, with the military.” 

Stylistic preference is undoubtedly playing a role in Trump’s appointments. In his position as Homeland Security secretary, Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, oversaw sweeping immigration raids and harsh crackdowns. His discipline and no-nonsense approach to policy attracted Trump’s attention—enough that Kelly ended up replacing GOP insider Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff after Trump determined Priebus too “weak” to lead. In an announcement on Twitter, Trump simultaneously announced Priebus’ firing and Kelly’s new title, emphasizing the former general’s qualities.

“He is a Great American and a Great Leader,” Trump wrote. “John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security. He has been a true star of my Administration.”

Kelly’s appointment is part of a larger restructuring throughout the Trump administration, one that is benefiting military insiders. On Tuesday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster (a three-star Army general who replaced the outgoing Flynn) appointed retired Army Col. Michael Bell top Middle East adviser on the National Security Council—a sign that McMaster himself is succeeding in efforts to weed out Flynn appointees.


Bell’s appointment, coupled with Kelly’s title change and Inch’s new position, has sparked concern in some corners.

Of course there are people who are concerned about this,” said Berman, pointing to thinkers on the political left who worry civil-military relations in the United States are being eroded as military representation in government grows. While civil-military relations in the United States are different than in places like Egypt, which is currently ruled by the military, or Pakistan, where the military has governed off and on, there’s still concern that a similar shift could occur in the United States. But Berman noted that the situation is more complex than that.

“Egypt and Pakistan are examples on the very far end of the spectrum,” she said. “These are countries that have had military rule. And the reason for that military rule is that there aren’t really other institutions with the same level of strength and legitimacy. We’re not in that situation in the United States. We have a very robust civil society.”

But while Trump’s appreciation for loyalty may not immediately signal a shift in how the U.S. government operates, it could easily have an outsized impact on policy—and approach—moving forward.

“Being in the military, you develop a certain way of doing things,” Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. “The military is probably reluctant to start a war—but once they do, they’ll see it through and use everything they have.”


Like Berman, Korb believes that Trump’s proximity to military leaders is undoubtedly influencing the White House. (ThinkProgress is an independent publication housed at the Center for American Progress.) The president’s tendency toward tough talk and aggressive threats is in line with the attitude military brass often take, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

In July, Trump threatened “some pretty severe” consequences for North Korea should the isolated nation continue its nuclear efforts. The previous month, Trump similarly threatened Syria over a potential chemical weapons attack, saying the country would “pay a heavy price” if such an event occurred. Those remarks mirror comments Mattis made in April. Speaking with reporters following a U.S. missile strike on Syria, the Defense secretary was resolute. “If they use chemical weapons [again], they are going to pay a very, very stiff price,” he said at the time.

But Korb argued that the burgeoning military culture in the White House is built on pre-existing ties, and the president’s approach is as much driven by his own organic tendencies as it is by outside pressure. Trump garnered significant support from the military during his presidential campaign in 2016. That support, Korb said, wasn’t surprising. “Trump presented himself as a strong leader, no nonsense, full of bold statements. He wanted to rip up the Iran Deal, go after ISIS. They liked that.”

That support will arguably be put to the test. “One thing military members don’t like is chaos and lack of hierarchy,” said Berman, something for which the White House is notorious. Korb also cautioned that while Kelly has reportedly imposed order since becoming Chief of Staff, there’s no guarantee that such deference will continue. If it ceases, Korb said, Kelly could easily resign and walk away—and so could others.

For now, the military has Trump’s eyes and ears, something that will continue to influence White House policy for the foreseeable future. Berman said that’s something observers should keep an eye on.

One thing to think about is, look, do we have an administration now where we’re in the danger of the decision-making process becoming too closed off or too narrow?” she said.

Korb echoed that sentiment. “If you’re only talking to military people,” he said, “are you going to develop the attitude that you need?”