Mike Flynn. You’re Fired! H.R. McMaster. Jim Mattis. John Kelly. You’re hired!


BREAKING DEFENSE -President Donald Trump has turned to fellow billionaire businessmen for many top jobs in his “Drain the Swamp” administration. But for three crucial national security roles—Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of Homeland Security—he has turned to career military men.

So determined is Trump to have soldiers at his side that, when the retired three-star Army general he chose for National Security Advisor had to resign, the President chose a serving three-star general to replace him. Sure, these o cers have relevant experience a-plenty, but their nominations set o alarm bells for many concerned about the principle of civilian control.

Indeed, Mattis retired from the Marine Corps so recently,
in 2013, that Congress had to vote him a special waiver from law requiring military o cers to be retired seven years before serving as Secretary of Defense, only the second such exemption in 70 years. There’s no such restriction for a National Security Advisor or a Homeland Security Secretary, which is just as well for Team Trump: Flynn retired from the Army only in 2014, Kelly from the Marines Corps in 2016, and McMaster is still on active duty.

But contrary to stereotypes of cigar-chomping, trigger- happy generals, Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis has already proven a voice of moderation and restraint, publicly walking back comments by his more bellicose boss. Even before Trump was inaugurated or Mattis con rmed, Gen. Mattis said the U.S. should abide by its nuclear deal with Iran, ful ll its commitments to NATO, and keep buying the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—three things on which the then-President Elect had very publically cast doubt. Indeed, the moment Trump’s choice of Mattis became public, the national security establishment in both the
US and Europe breathed audible sighs of relief. That’s especially remarkable considering Mattis was pushed out of his last command, CENTCOM, because the Obama Administration considered him too hawkish on Iran: In the context of Team Trump, Mattis is the soul of moderation.


Similarly, Kelly publicly deviated from several of Trump’s more extreme campaign pledges. In his Senate con rmation hearing, the retired Marine general rejected waterboarding as unlawful torture, doubted the value of a wall along the Mexican border or mass deportations, and questioned the constitutionality of targeting Muslims for domestic surveillance and other security measures on the grounds of their religion. Like Mattis, Kelly received an enthusiastic audience in the Senate.

Flynn was more of a wild card—which ultimately proved his downfall. As a general in the normally cloistered world of Army intelligence, Flynn captured headlines in 2010 with a public paper blasting the military intelligence e ort in Afghanistan, which he had just taken command of, and laying out reforms. Four years later, as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he made such controversial changes that the Obama Administration forced him out.

In civilian life, he retweeted scurrilous stories about Hillary Clinton and had a much-criticized paid speaking engagement in Russia. Ultimately, it was his eagerness
to reach out to Russia that tripped him up: He reportedly spoke to the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions —a controversial idea in itself—in the legally murky period after the election but before the inauguration, then misled the public and even Vice-President Pence about it.

Replacing Flynn as National Security Advisor was just the latest step in H.R. McMaster’s surprising rise. Once McMaster seemed fated to resign as a colonel, one of the many talented o cers too iconoclastic to make general. After two successive promotion boards passed him over, counterinsurgency Gen. David Petraeus personally intervened with the bureaucracy. McMaster not only rocketed up the ranks to three-star general but became a leading gure in shaping the Army’s thinking about its future. Even more signi cant for Trump, McMaster’s philosophy of leadership—embodied in his book about Vietnam, Dereliction of Duty—is for generals to speak blunt, uncomfortable truths to their political leaders.

Despite their diferences, all four men were shaped by the common life of military and by the shared crucible of guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Gerald Ford award-winning journalist James Kit eld wrote for us in a special four-part series, those ordeals shaped their worldview in ways that will have a profound in uence on the Trump Administration.


For three crucial national security roles—Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of Homeland Security—President Donald Trump has turned to career military men. Sure, they have relevant experience a-plenty, but their nominations set off alarm bells for many concerned about the principle of civilian control. 



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