Witcover: Trump's generals add stability to administration

With President Trump on a "working vacation" at his New Jersey golf club and with Congress on its summer recess, there's hope for at least modest relief from the political chaos that has dominated his first six months in office.

Some legislators continue to consider resurrecting the failed fight to repeal and replace Obamacare. Others remain focused on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and any coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign. Lawmakers from both parties have taken steps to shield Mr. Mueller from possible firing by Mr. Trump.


In the meantime, the latest North Korean tests of ICBMs capable of reaching the eastern United States have heightened nervousness at home, especially with an inexperienced, bellicose talker in the Oval Office (or wherever he temporarily hangs his hat).

Mr. Trump fired governmental rookie Reince Priebus as his White Housechief of staff, and replaced him with retired Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, a long overdue move that was reassuring. Both in draining the swamp of the administration's amateurs and in bringing veteran military wisdom to the Oval Office, General Kelly's appointment has been widely welcomed.


He joins two other similarly experienced military men to fortify the administration's policy strategy, which to date has been shaped by Mr. Trump's bluster and muscle-flexing in Madison Avenue mufti.

Mr. Trump's national security adviser, former Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, early on replaced retired Gen. Michael Flynn, fired for lying about his connections with the Russians. General McMaster in turn has been attacked by ultraconservative groups for dismissing some of General Flynn's hires, but Mr. Trump did not intervene.

Equally notable in Cabinet meetings is retired Gen. James Mattis, the secretary of defense, regularly introduced enthusiastically by the president by his nickname of "Mad Dog." So far at least, General Mattis has appeared to hold himself on a tight leash, as befits a prudent civilian subordinate.

Having an administration heavy in advisers of strong military experience is seen as potentially a restraining force on the commander-in-chief, but it hasn't always been the case.

Under President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, a former general who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War, put his impressive public record in military affairs on the line before the United Nations Security Council in late 2002. He vouched for Bush's claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Secretary Powell at great length professed he had solid evidence that Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein had them. But he presented only illustrations of mobile laboratories alleged to be making WMDs, not photographic proof of their existence.

The U.S. military boasted then of having the capability of providing indisputable evidence via long-range aerial surveillance, as seen in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. After Mr. Bush had ordered the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it became clear that no WMDs had been found. Mr. Powell later wrote that his UN testimony was the worst "blot" on his lifelong public service record.

Still, in the current circumstances, the presence of Generals Mattis, McMaster and Kelly in the Trump inner circle lends some reassurance of professional advice. They are said to have direct access to and the ear of this president, whose only semblance of military training and experience was at a private military academy.


Former Obama CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has told CNN that with their military service these members of the Trump Cabinet have "created a bond" that should be constructive.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives at a military base in Subang, Malaysia, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. President Donald Trump declared the U.S. nuclear arsenal "far stronger and more powerful than ever before," even as Tillerson was working to calm the North Korea crisis and insisting there wasn't "any imminent threat." (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

At the same time, having as secretary of state the former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, a man of broad international connections but no high-level diplomatic experience, lends some cause for uneasiness. This is particularly so, inasmuch as at the State Department, like other Trump Cabinet-level departments, has many top policy jobs still unfilled.

In any event, the early rumblings of critical concern over Mr. Trump loading his administration with lifelong professional warriors are now seldom heard.

Particularly in liberal political quarters, there seems to be a growing sense of relief, or at least reservation, that Donald Trump, who so often seems only to listen to himself, now has "the generals" he so professes to respect on the job, with the confidence of the man whose finger has sole access to the American nuclear button.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is