Trump Would Turn the Military Into His Personal Political Weapon in His Second Term
Trump becoming commander-in-chief again would strain civil-military relations to a breaking point
During Donald Trump’s first term, the military faced multiple challenges from its commander-in-chief.
Trump and his staff tried to drag the military into partisan politics, positioning uniformed personnel at campaign events and the 2020 GOP convention. He requested that the name of the Naval ship USS McCain be covered up due to his distaste for a certain senator. He demanded a North Korean-style military parade on the Fourth of July. He benefited from the military unethically spending money at his properties. And Trump, who dubiously avoided serving in Vietnam, voiced disdain for service members, including the dead and wounded.
Worse, Trump allegedly retaliated against Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who blew the whistle on his illegal attempt to get Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden in 2019, leading to Trump’s first impeachment. He foolishly tweeted military secrets. He absconded with classified documents and refused to return them, leading to his indictment under the Espionage Act last year. He discussed the military using unlawful excessive force against migrants in 2018 (an idea deflected by Secretary of Defense James Mattis).
Insurrectionist Deploying the Insurrection Act
Most seriously, Trump was fixated on the Insurrection Act of 1807. The Act provides that in situations where a president considers that unlawful assemblages make it impracticable to enforce federal laws he may use the armed forces to enforce those laws. Presidents have used the Act for good and ill throughout American history: to enforce court-ordered desegregation and put down violent unrest on one hand, and to suppress enslaved people, Native Americans, and union members on the other. After George Floyd’s murder in June 2020, Trump sought to invoke the Insurrection Act to use the military against rioters and protesters, until this idea was rejected by Mattis’ successor, Mark Esper. Per unsealed indictments, Trump’s attorney also floated using the Act against protesters if Congress refused to certify Biden’s 2020 election victory. Every living former defense secretary considered it necessary to warn the military to take no role in resolving the dispute between the president and president-elect.
Thankfully, the United States military survived Donald Trump’s first administration with its honor intact. Our armed forces mostly resisted the commander-in-chief’s pressure to violate the country’s laws and its institutional norms.
But over the past three years, the views publicly expressed by the former president and his advisors have grown even more extreme. Last month, Trump’s defense lawyer calmly entertained a hypothetical from a circuit judge about a president who ordered SEAL Team Six to assassinate a political opponent. Counsel did not bat an eye. He responded that such a leader would be immune from prosecution for murder after leaving office, unless he was first impeached and convicted by Congress. It’s a sign of the times that previously unthinkable presidential misuses of the military are now openly discussed in court.
On January 15, Trump won a majority of votes in the Republican Iowa caucus. He then won New Hampshire. It is very likely he will face Joe Biden in the election later this year, and there is a very real chance he will win. What, then, are the prospects for a second Trump term?
Trump’s Plans to Sic the Military on Americans
If Trump wins the election, he is likely to announce policies which, while military leaders may disagree with them, are well within a president’s discretion, such as withdrawing troops from NATO countries, Japan, and South Korea, and forcing Ukraine to surrender territory to Russia. The Founding Fathers gave the commander-in-chief broad and powerful authority in military and diplomatic matters, and these orders the armed forces must obey.
But Trump may go beyond that:
His team has reportedly drawn up plans to invoke the Insurrection Act to increase the use of the military to quell domestic protests.
Trump and his supporters have proposed recalling to active duty retired generals who served in Trump’s administration and subsequently criticized him, in order to prosecute them under the section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that forbids officers from uttering “contemptuous words” about the president.
Trump’s staff has promised to use the National Guard to aid Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in the internal enforcement of immigration laws. While legal, this would be unwise and would entail armed teenage soldiers, untrained in conducting criminal investigations within constitutional parameters, asking citizens and noncitizens alike—including many Hispanics—to produce identity papers. With their commander-in-chief openly stating that migrants are “poisoning the blood of the country,” some encounters would inevitably result in civil rights abuses.
Former Pentagon chief of staff Kash Patel has pledged to “come after” Trump’s political opponents in the federal bureaucracy and the press. Trump admits to planning to abuse his power “on day one,” and retweeted a word cloud featuring the terms “revenge,” “power,” and “dictatorship” and a video stating that he is an instrument of God.
Trump has mused about serving a third presidential term, which is plainly unconstitutional.
None of this is normal, or good.
Of course, Joe Biden’s relationship with the military is far from perfect. He’s a college athlete who claimed unfitness for the draft. He inexplicably repeats debunked stories about himself, his family, and the armed services. He ignored military advice about withdrawing from Afghanistan, and then denied receiving that good advice. He inappropriately surrounded himself with uniformed Marines for a partisan speech in Philadelphia in 2022.
The Military’s Impossible Predicament
Yet the dangers to civil-military relations posed by Trump’s second term are of another category of risk. If the military goes along with Trump’s plans, it’ll be seen as an authoritarian instrument. Whenever the armed forces have used violence against American civilians—from 19th century strikebreaking, to scattering Bonus Marchers during the Great Depression, to shooting students at Kent State University in 1970—it has resulted in intense criticism, discrediting the services in the public eye. Partisan misuse of the armed forces would turn at least half the country against the military and tear the services themselves apart.
At the same time, if the military chooses not to go along with Trump it would mark the end of civilian control of the armed forces. This precious gift, granted to the country by General Washington, is a hallmark of American democracy. It benefits the country to have a professional military focusing on its full-time job of defeating foreign threats.
The armed forces will therefore face an impossible choice. Officers must not obey blatantly illegal orders, and may choose to resign, or be relieved and possibly court-martialed, rather than obey immoral or unwise ones. But the question remains: If Trump gives such orders, and defense officials get fired or resign rather than follow them, at what level will firings and resignations stop? Someone must remain to defend America.
The Justice Department faced this conundrum in 1973, when President Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox for demanding evidence incriminating the president. Nixon’s order, while legal, was immoral and unwise. Richardson and his deputy understandably resigned, and the department’s third-ranking official, Solicitor General Robert Bork, fired Cox. Bork was criticized for his decision—but his reasonable rejoinder, at a time when thousands of criminal prosecutions and investigations were underway across the country, was that federal law enforcement’s leadership could hardly resign en masse.
Military leaders will face similar dilemmas in a second Trump term, with multiple national security crises likely to be taking place abroad. Those officers who choose in good faith to either resign or stay will be painfully accused by peers of failing in their duty and succumbing to ego or ambition.
In my opinion, the U.S. military has been a force for good since 1775. It has established America’s independence, preserved the Union and emancipated the enslaved, defeated the Nazis and ended the Holocaust, deterred the Soviets, and avenged 9/11. But the military is no better than the society it serves. The armed forces would face enormous stresses in a second Trump administration. Thus far Congress has ignored quiet pleas from some senior retired officers to provide additional legal safeguards now, in order to maintain proper civil-military relations going forward. Meanwhile, some commentators blithely assume, without explanation, that uniformed leaders will find new ways to again deflect Trump’s worst impulses.
The military and the citizens it serves will suffer grave harm in this foreseeable constitutional crisis. The best way to avoid a perilous situation for the Republic is for voters to go to the polls and choose a better commander-in-chief than Donald Trump.
This essay originally appeared in Persuasion, The UnPopulist’s editorial partner.