When the next president is inaugurated in 2017, it will be almost a quarter century since America had a commander-in-chief with any significant military experience.
George W. Bush was a lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard who served stateside (and questions remain about his attendance record); neither Bill Clinton nor Obama ever served, and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have no military records.
Trump and Clinton have traded barbs about who has the temperament and judgment to carry the nuclear code. Now, with the Orlando killings and the shooter’s reported pledge of allegiance to ISIS, will the question of who is better equipped to be commander-in-chief of a nation threatened by terrorists become a more significant campaign issue?
Sunday on Meet the Press, conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt suggested the mass murders could lead Trump to select a running mate with military experience. “If [Orlando] turns out to have been inspired by ISIS, it will fulfill Donald Trump's prediction of the problem with [Clinton’s] candidacy, which is: It's not serious about terrorism,” Hewitt said. “Egypt, Libya, Syria, her whole record is a disaster. …It's also going to frame [Trump’s] choice, which is imminent, of his vice president. And I think it strengthens the case for Chris Christie and Tom Cotton.”
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas: Christie has no military record, but Cotton, the junior U.S. senator from Arkansas does. After going straight from the family farm to Harvard and Harvard Law and then working for a few years as a lawyer, Cotton joined the Army. Trained an airborne Ranger, he served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Cotton also shares positions similar to Trump on immigration and the nuclear deal with Iran. He famously wrote a diplomatically impolitic open letter to the leaders of Iran in March, 2015, about a month before the eight-nation agreement was signed. The letter, from Cotton and 46 GOP Senate colleagues said the deal was “nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei. The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”
On immigration, Cotton has long been an opponent of amnesty for those here illegally, and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed almost three years wrote about the effectiveness of a fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Like Trump, he also talks about how illegal immigrants have cost Americans jobs.
Perhaps even more important, the 39-year-old Cotton is a rising GOP star with Tea Party cred and is not among the growing number of Republican leaders who say they cannot support the presumptive nominee of their party. In fact, Cotton told Politico last month that he would be open to serving in a Trump administration, even as vice president.
Cotton, of course, isn’t the only Republican in Washington or elsewhere with the military experience that could bolster a Trump ticket. Among other possibilities are:
Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa
Ernst is the first woman combat veteran to serve in the Senate. She was a company commander in Kuwait and Iraq, according to her official bio, and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard after 23 years of service. Another up-and-coming GOP star, Ernst has been mentioned as a running mate for Trump.
Former Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts
Last Saturday at a rally Brown hosted for Trump in New Hampshire, the presumptive GOP nominee joked with the crowd about having Brown as his Veep choice. “Hey, you know what? And he’s central casting. Look at that guy. Central casting,” Trump said of the telegenic Brown who once worked as a model. Brown served in the Army National Guard for 35 years, retiring as a colonel. But he was defeated for reelection by Trump bête noire Elizabeth Warren in 2012. Brown then moved to his birth state of New Hampshire and ran against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in 2014 and lost again. If there is one thing that Trump doesn’t like, it’s a loser.
Former Army General Stanley McChrystal
If Trump wants a real soldier at his side, there is no more military a man than McChrystal. The son of a general, he is a West Point grad and Green Beret who headed the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command from 2003-2008 when it captured Saddam Hussein and al- Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In 2009, President Obama appointed him as top commander in Afghanistan. In his book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called McChrystal “perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat” he ever met. But the general resigned his Afghanistan command after about a year following publication of an article in Rolling Stone that quoted him talking trash about Vice-President Joe Biden and “clowns” in the White House Leadership.
At first blush, McChrystal and Trump seem like an odd couple: The general is legendary for his ascetic discipline, while Trump is famous for his self-indulgence and lack of control. But in a speech last fall, Trump spoke glowingly of a military leader who sounded a lot like McChrystal and had some qualities the pair may share. “We had one general, who was really tough,” Trump said. “I won’t say his name. But he got fired because he was very, very nasty. He wasn’t politically correct. And everybody said he was our best general.”
Former Army General Mike Flynn
Should Trump decide to pick a running mate with deep military and Washington experience, he would not have to look very far. Flynn, though a registered Democrat, told CNN that he has been advising Trump on a range of issues. A paratrooper by training, Flynn is an expert in military intelligence. He was a top intelligence adviser to McChrystal in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he served as director of intelligence for the U.S. Central Command and for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In the spring of 2014, The Washington Post reported that he was ousted as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency after clashes with other intelligence officials and then resigned his commission. Since then, Flynn has been critical of Obama’s foreign policy and military tactics. Like Trump, he says invading Iraq and supporting the removal of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were fatal errors. In an interview with the German publication Der Spiegel last November, Flynn said, “The historic lesson is that it was a strategic failure to go into Iraq. History will not be and should not be kind with that decision.”
Former Senator Jim Webb
Webb has it all: He’s a war hero who as a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam earned the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. A graduate of the Naval Academy, Webb was an Assistant Defense Secretary and Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. And he served a single term as U.S. Senator from Virginia. The only possible glitch – or perhaps plus – for Trump is this: Webb, like Flynn, is a Democrat – but a much more high-profile member of the party. In fact, he was a briefly a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination before dropping his bid last October. But Webb and Trump line up on many issues.
Webb spoke out against invading Iraq; he is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment right to bear arms; and he has written about increasing income inequality and the negative effects of free trade on American workers. One other thing both Webb and Trump have in common is their outspokenness. Last March, Webb said he could not vote for Clinton but might vote for Trump.