Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff said Tuesday he was targeting the ‘military-industrial complex’ when he attacked top military commanders, complaining they just want to keep defense contractors ‘happy’ as he argued soldiers in the field ‘love me.’
In his remarks, Trump seemed to suggest it was the nation’s top military leaders who were behind an article in The Atlantic, where un-named sources claimed the president called those who fought and died in combat ‘losers’ and ‘suckers.’
‘I’m not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are,’ Trump said during a press conference at the White House.
‘The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,’ he added.
Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Tuesday said the president’s comment on military leaders was not directed toward any ‘individual’ but ‘was more directed about the military-industrial complex,’ a phrase made famous by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961 as a warning about its power.
‘He’s not going to let some lobbyists here in Washington DC – just because they want a new defense contract – suggest that [soldiers] need to stay abroad one minute longer than they should,’ Meadows said at the White House.
‘He’s been consistent about stopping these endless wars, he’s going to continue to fight against the special interest groups here in Washington DC,’ Meadows said of President Trump.
Mark Meadows defended Donald Trump Tuesday after his boss attacked top military commanders on Monday, complaining they just want to keep defense contractors ‘happy’ as he argued soldiers in the field ‘love me’
Trump’s comments were seen as suggesting top military leaders were behind an article in The Atlantic, which reported he made disparaging comments about U.S. troops – above the president is seen with Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley on June 1 as Trump walked to St. John’s church for a photo-op
President Trump – seen with the National Guard in Louisiana last month – has long touted his support for soldiers, saying he’s given them a pay raise
Trump’s attack comes as current and retired military officers have been notably quiet about the allegations in the article, which dropped like a bomb on the White House last week and left them launching a massive counter offensive, including statements from former aides and posting many photos of the president with soldiers on social media.
Among those who have been silent are John Kelly, the retired Marine general who was Trump’s chief of staff and at whose fallen son’s grave the president is said to have said he ‘didn’t get’ why troops signed up, and who was with him on the trip to Paris where he allegedly disparaged fallen World War One Marines.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper defended the president on Friday, citing Trump’s support for the troops but his statement stopped short of an outright denial of the article’s explosive allegations.
‘President Trump has the highest respect and admiration for our nation’s military members, veterans and families,’ Esper said. ‘That is why he has fought for greater pay and more funding for our armed forces.’
Esper, whom Trump appointed to the job, was defense contractor Raytheon Company’s chief Washington lobbyist before he became Army secretary in 2017 and then Defense Secretary.
The president also defended himself in an onslaught of retweets on Tuesday morning. Trump retweeted articles featuring former aides defending him including his former National Security Adviser John Bolton and his former deputy Chief of Staff Zach Fuentes.
He also retweeted an op-ed from a soldier who described who Trump came to Dover Air Force Base after his wife was killed fighting in Syria.
Trump’s remarks come as many current and retired military leaders including John Kelly (above), the former White House chief of staff and a retired four-star general, have been silent on the allegations in The Atlantic article
Trump was meant to join John Kelly in paying his respects to Kelly’s son’s grave and comfort the families of other fallen service members in Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day, 2017 (above). However, Trump reportedly turned to Kelly and said: ‘I don’t get it. What’s in it for them?’
Trump has had a strained relationship with the military since he used federal forces to quell Black Lives Matters protests in Washington D.C. in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley expressed regret for walking through Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church in what turned out to be a photo op during the June protests.
Trump has been vigorously defending himself in the wake of the publication of The Atlantic piece last week. At least 14 former staffers who were on the 2018 Paris trip have denied the article’s report, as has first lady Melania Trump.
The president called the story a ‘hoax.’
‘Only an animal would say a thing like that,’ he said Monday of the allegations in the article. ‘There is nobody that has more respect for not only our military, but for people that gave their lives in the military.’
Trump side stepped a question at his press conference on Monday as to whether he would ask Kelly to speak publicly on the matter.
IS TRUMP ECHOING IKE’S ‘MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX’ WARNING OF 1961?
Days before Dwight D. Eisenhower left office as president in 1961, he delivered a farewell address which introduced the term ‘military-industrial complex,’ warning: ‘In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.’
His address was a final act in public life for a president who had been an officer in World War One, planned for the next war during the Depression – when few saw one coming – and rose to be the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe as a five-star general before being drafted by the Republicans to run in 1952.
In 1961, he issued his warning as part of a message to a nation experiencing previously unknown levels of wealth, and Eisenhower sensed a danger that the threats to its future included deficit spending, and both a military and scientific elite corrupting democracy.
At the time defense spending far exceeded current levels as a proportion of gross domestic product – 8.62% in Eisenhower’s final year, compared to 3.16% in 2018.
Eisenhower warned that more was spent on defense than ‘the net income of all United States corporations.’ A similar comparison today shows private sector net income in 2018 at least three times greater than defense spending.
Farewell: Eisenhower gave his final address in public life from the White House on January 17, 1961
Decline of defense significance: The proportion of GDP spent on defense has fallen far below where it was when Eisenhower issued his warning
What concerned Eisenhower was that throughout the 1950s, military spending had been prioritized for the arms race with the Soviet Union, one which at the time seemed to have no end in sight.
And until the war with Korea, the U.S. military had turned to civilian suppliers to equip the troops on the basis that they returned to civilian production at the end of hostilities. Instead the 1950s saw the rise of a dedicated defense industry, whose presence was dispersed across the country, giving it immense influence at every level of state and congressional politics.
Eisenhower feared that the combination of vast federal spending and an industry dependent on it could subvert democracy. He had himself tried to cut Pentagon budgets to no avail; members of Congress saw no benefit in reducing the gusher of federal spending in their districts with the jobs and wealth it brought.
In the 1960s, as the U.S. waded into the morass of Vietnam, his warning appeared to be true, and the term ‘military-industrial complex’ was seized on by opponents of escalation.
Ironically a conservative, Republican analysis of the dangers of the state setting the terms of the economy was also eagerly used by the left who saw it as an authoritarian power grab.
Critics saw Vietnam as the product of a technocratic military which kept pushing for more troops and more weaponry in the absence of a genuine strategy and purpose for the war, backed by think tanks such as the RAND Corporation which advocated their case in public with funding from the defense industry, and lobbyists who did the same in private, creating a circular logic for unending war.
The war’s advocates robustly denied the critique but the term stuck.
After Vietnam, the phrase came to encompass the revolving-door between the ranks of high command – in the military and at the top of the Pentagon – and military contractors.
Virtually every chairman of the joint chiefs and virtually every former Senate-confirmed Pentagon official has gone on to a board seat on a defense contractor, while they also become involved in think tanks which try to shape the future of military spending.
It has been blamed for the ‘endless wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan where elevated military spending have undoubtedly benefited contractors, and for bending foreign policy towards military spending.
New tech companies have increasingly tried to enter into the military space, sensing lucrative opportunities and themselves offering former senior military and Pentagon figures new roles.
Those who see the military-industrial complex as still being a baleful influence have a mixed picture to point to.
On the one hand, the economy has never been less dependent on military spending: none of the Dow Jones component companies, which paint a picture of the U.S. economy are solely defense contractors.
Most of the military budget goes nowhere near the ‘industrial’ part of the complex, with the majority spent on pay and benefits, including veterans affairs, reflecting the cost both of professional armed forces and the ongoing care of those who served in earlier eras of mass mobilization and the most recent post-2001 conflicts.
On the other hand many of those predominantly civilian companies pursue Pentagon contracts aggressively, while American military contractors who in Eisenhower’s era solely served the U.S. now do business around the world.
And while the manufacturing power of military demand is hardly on a scale of the vast spending of the 1950s and 1960s, the shrinking of the total manufacturing base means that defense manufacturing remains a powerful political force in some areas, particularly the mid-west swing states.
Trump may however be an unlikely opponent of the complex. His current defense secretary was a Raytheon executive, his Veterans Affairs secretary was one too, and the most senior former general in a civilian role in the current administration, Mike Pence’s national security advisor worked for a series of contractors including Oracle.
Most notably of all, Jim Mattis, his first defense secretary left the military in 2013, joined General Dynamics and the Hoover Institution – the right-wing think tank at Stanford – before being nominated to the Cabinet role with an exemption from normal rules which prohibit general serving in government so rapidly.
And Trump’s spending is out of sync with Eisenhower’s attempts at reducing military budgets: in fiscal year 2021, Trump wants a budget of $740.5 billion for the military, the third year in a row he has sought to increase it, while speaking repeatedly of ‘rebuilding’ a military he claims was ‘depleted.’
He has also proved an adept and aggressive salesman for American might, pushing foreign nations to buy U.S. weapons systems – the product of exactly the military-industrial complex he claimed he was taking on.
On that 2018 Paris trip, according to The Atlantic, the president said he wasn’t going to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris for American soldiers killed in World War I because ‘it’s filled with losers,’ and that Marines slain at Belleau Wood were ‘suckers’ for getting killed.
The White House said the president did not travel to the cemetery because of bad weather, which would not allow him to take Marine One as planned.
Additionally, the article reported that during a 2017 visit to Arlington National Cemetery, Trump and Kelly stopped in Section 60, to pay respects at the grave of Kelly’s son, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, a Marine who was killed at age 29 in Afghanistan in 2010.
Trump reportedly said to Kelly: ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’
Former national security adviser, John Bolton, who was with the president in France at the time – and has shared a number of high profile fallouts with him Trump – went on the record to dispute the Atlantic’s report.
‘I didn’t hear either of those comments or anything even resembling them,’ Bolton told Fox News. ‘I was there at the point in time that morning when it was decided that he would not go Aisne-Marne cemetery … It was entirely a weather-related decision, and I thought the proper thing to do.
‘I never heard he made that kind of comment about another country’s forces either, no.’
Fox correspondent John Roberts, who conducted the Bolton interview, added that he has told him, ‘if [Donald Trump] had said he didn’t want to visit Aisne-Marne because the interred heroes were ‘losers’ and ‘suckers,’ he would have written an entire chapter about it in his book #TheRoomWhereItHappened.’
Former White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, meanwhile, has decried the report as ‘total BS’.
‘I was actually there and one of the people part of the discussion – this never happened. I have sat in the room when our President called family members after their sons were killed in action and it was heart-wrenching … I am disgusted by this false attack.’
Other protesting staffers include former Deputy White House Press Secretary Hogan Gidley, who called the report ‘grotesque’; White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Dan Scavino; and Jordan Karem, personal aide to President Trump.
President Trump takes a selfie with soldiers during a stop at Ramstein Air Base on December 27, 2018
Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg said he expects more information to come out in the coming days to corroborate his story about Trump’s remarks
Meanwhile, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg told CNN’s ‘Reliable Sources’ on Sunday that he expects ‘more confirmation and new pieces of information’ to come out in the coming days and weeks that will corroborate about the alleged incendiary comments.
Goldberg also addressed his use of anonymous sources, which has come under criticism from the president and others who believe that officials should not be allowed to launch bombshell allegations under the cloak of anonymity – particularly in the build up to an election.
‘These are not people who are anonymous to me,’ Goldberg told CNN. ‘We all have to use anonymous sources especially in a climate in which the president of the United States tries to actively intimidate journalism organizations and people who provide information to journalism organizations.’
Goldberg said his decision to publish the article was made confidently, because of the number of sources he had, and their close ties to the president.
‘The formula is simple,’ he continued. ‘What you do is you have to say, does the public’s right to know or need to know a particular piece of information outweigh the morally complicated and ambiguous qualities of anonymous sourcing.
‘Most of us, most of the time, don’t rely on anonymous sourcing for most things because there are difficulties there. But in this climate, with information that we judge the voters to need, we are going to use anonymous sources because we think the public has a right to know. Especially when you have four or five or six sources, primary sources, corroborating sources, telling you the same thing.’