In the summer of 2017, after half a year in the White House, Donald Trump flew to Paris to celebrate Bastille Day, sent by the new French President Emmanuel Macron. Macron has put on a spectacular show of combat to mark the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I. Overhead, fighter jets roared and antiquated tanks rolled down the Champs-Elysées. The event seemed designed to appeal to Trump’s sense of showmanship and pomp, and he was delighted. The French general in charge of the parade turned to one of his American generals and said, “You’ll do it next year.”
Trump returned to Washington and decided to give his generals the largest and largest military parade in history on the 4th of July. The generals reacted with distaste to his surprise. “I’d rather swallow acid,” said his defense secretary, James Mattis. Officials struggling to fend off Trump have pointed out that the rally will cost millions of dollars and disrupt the streets of the capital.
But the rift between Trump and the generals was not about money or reality, and their endless policy battle was not just about whether to withdraw troops from Afghanistan or how to deal with the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran. The division was about values and how they viewed the United States. That was never more clear than when Trump, like retired Marine general Mattis, told his new chief of staff, John Kelly, his vision for Independence Day. “Look, I don’t want wounded guys in the parade,” Trump said. “It doesn’t look good to me.” He explained with dismay that there were several groups of wounded veterans during the Bastille march, including wheelchair-bound soldiers who had lost arms and legs in battle.
Kelly couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “They are heroes,” he told Trump. “There is only one more heroic man in our community than them, and they are buried in Arlington.” Kelly did not mention that his son Robert, a lieutenant killed in action in Afghanistan, was among those buried there.
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“I don’t want them,” Trump repeated. “It doesn’t look good to me.”
The topic came up again during an Oval Office press conference attended by Trump, Kelly, Air Force general and Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Paul Selva. Kelly made a silly joke about the parade. “Well, as you know, General Selva will be in charge of organizing the Fourth of July parade,” he told the President. Trump didn’t understand that Kelly was joking. “So what do you think of the demonstration?” Trump asked Selva. Instead of telling Trump what he wanted to hear, Selva spoke bluntly.
“I didn’t grow up in the United States, I actually grew up in Portugal,” Selva said. “Portugal was a dictatorship and parades were about showing people with guns. And we don’t do that in this country.” “It’s not who we are,” he added.
Even after this fiery speech, Trump didn’t get it. “So you don’t like the idea?” she said in disbelief.
“No,” said Selva. “That’s what dictators do.”
The four years of Trump’s presidency have been marked by a surprising level of volatility, including temper tantrums, late-night Twitter storms and sudden firings. Trump, who initially called himself a bonehead and avoided the draft, appears to have fallen in love with the commander-in-chief and the national security officials he appointed or inherited. But Trump’s love affair with “my generals” was short-lived, and in a statement for this article, the former president confirmed how much he grew to dislike them over time. “These were very untalented people, and I realized that, but I didn’t rely on them, but on the real generals and admirals of the system,” he said.
It was revealed that the generals were not blindly loyal to rules, standards, and qualifications. One day President John Kelly said, “Dog generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?”
“What generals?” Kelly asked.
“German generals in World War II,” Trump replied.
“Did you know they tried to kill Hitler three times and almost killed him?” said Kelly.
But of course Trump didn’t know that. “No, no, no, they were loyal to him,” replied the President. In his version of the story, the generals of the Third Reich were completely subordinate to Hitler; This was the model he wanted for the military. Kelly said Trump did not have such an American general, but the President decided to try the proposal.
By the end of 2018, Trump wants to handpick the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was fed up with Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, who worked closely with Mattis and opposed some of Trump’s more outlandish ideas. Never mind that Dunford has most of the years left in his term. David Urban, the lobbyist behind Trump’s 2016 election win in Pennsylvania, has been urging the president and his aides for months to replace Dunford with a leader with a different perspective and no ties to Dunford or Mattis. Kelly in the Marines.
Mattis’ nominee to succeed Dunford was David Goldfein, an Air Force general and former F-16 fighter pilot who was shot down and successfully evaded capture in the Balkans. No one remembered the president picking a chief over the objections of his defense secretary, but word got back to the Pentagon that Trump couldn’t accept just one recommendation. However, the military refused to consider two obvious contenders: General Curtis Scaparrotti, the top NATO commander in Europe, told colleagues that Trump had “no gas in my tank” for the presidency. General Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command, also begged off, telling a colleague that it was not appropriate for him to work so closely with Mattis.
Trump went to West Point with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to support Army Chief of Staff Mark Mille, who was still an Army man at heart. Millie, then sixty years old, was the son of a Marine Corpsman serving with the 4th Marine Division on Iwo Jima. He grew up outside of Boston and played hockey at Princeton. As an Army officer, Millie commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, leading the 10th Mountain Division and commanding Army Forces Command. Millie, a history major who always carries the latest World War II books with her, was certainly not a member of the naval coalition that dominated Trump’s first two years of national security policy. Urban told the President he would connect better with Millie, who is articulate, blunt to the point of vulgarity, and has an Ivy League pedigree that always surprises Trump.
Milley has already demonstrated these qualities in his meeting with Trump as Army Chief of Staff. “Millie will immediately understand why it is important for the president to learn about the military and why the military is the service that wins all the nation’s wars. He had this kind of speech in the elevator,” recalled a senior defense official. “He had a big screaming voice, got in the face of everyone in the same row, took a breath and said, ‘Mr. President, our military is here to serve you. you’re the commander-in-chief.”It was a very different approach, and Trump liked it.”
For his part, Mattis apparently believes that Milley is campaigning for the position inappropriately, but Milley confronted him at a reception that fall when Mattis said, “Hey, you shouldn’t be running for office. You can’t run to be chairman.” Milley later told People that he responded strongly to Mattis, saying, “I’m not lobbying for any shit. I’m not going to do it.” Milley finally brought it up with Dunford. “Hey, Mattis has it in his head,” Milley told him. “I’m telling you, I’m not.” Milley even claimed that he asked Urban to drop his candidacy.
In November 2018, the day before Millie’s interview with Trump, she faced another barb with Mattis at the Pentagon. When Millie later told others about the incident, Mattis urged him to tell Trump that he wanted to be the next supreme commander in Europe, not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Millie says she won’t do it, but will wait to hear what the President wants her to do. This would end the relationship between the two generals anyway.
When Millie arrived at the White House the next day, she was greeted by Kelly, who seemed unusually upset with her. Before they headed to the Oval Office to meet with Trump, Millie asked Kelly what she was thinking.
“You have to go to Europe and leave DC,” Kelly said. The White House was a cesspool: “Get as far as you can go.”