President-elect Donald Trump’s soldierly experience consists of attending a private military academy for high school and getting a medical deferment from the Vietnam Era draft. But his incoming administration could include more brass than the spent ammo after a firefight.
Three-star General Mike Flynn, who was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency by President Obama, is Trump’s choice for National Security Adviser. Flynn claims that he was let go after a relatively short stint because Obama would not listen to his warning that ISIS was, as he has said often, “an existential threat.”
However, a column on Monday in the conservative National Review makes a strong case that Flynn was given his walking papers because of his management style – though no one disputes that he was correct in his predictions about the Islamic State. But the reason for his ouster is at this point irrelevant. He will be at Trump’s elbow advising on a range of sensitive issues.
At the other elbow will be another adviser with military experience and less obvious national security chops, the much maligned campaign mastermind and now White House strategist-to-be Steve Bannon. Before he was executive chairman of Breitbart News, before he was a renegade filmmaker, before he was a Harvard MBA at Goldman Sachs, Bannon was a Naval officer. According to a prescient profile in Bloomberg Businessweek in October, 2015, after four years at sea on a destroyer, Bannon became “a special assistant to the chief of Naval operations at the Pentagon, earning a master’s degree in national security studies at Georgetown University at night.”
Nobody would ever accuse the hang-loose Bannon of being a strack trooper, but if Trump is looking for a more ramrod military appointment, he has former Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis waiting in the wings to be Secretary of Defense.
Like Flynn, Mattis clashed with the Obama Administration when he was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010-2013 and by all accounts was forced out in January 2013. He is now said to be on the short-short list to run Defense. On Sunday, Trump tweeted: “General James 'Mad Dog' Mattis, who is being considered for Secretary of Defense, was very impressive yesterday. A true General's General!”
But Mattis has a problem called The Code of Laws of the United States of America.
The relevant law reads: “There is a Secretary of Defense, who is the head of the Department of Defense, appointed from civilian life by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. A person may not be appointed as Secretary of Defense within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force.”
The seven-year rule can be waived by Congress, and there is historical precedent: In 1950, President Harry Truman requested and got a waiver for General George Marshall to serve as Defense Secretary, but there hasn’t been an exception asked for or granted since then. In addition, Mattis has support among senators such as John McCain of Arizona, a former Naval combat pilot, POW and, importantly, chair of the Armed Services Committee.
Another ousted general mentioned by Trump on the campaign trail but not during the transition process is Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan summarily fired by Obama in June 2010. A cerebral and much decorated proponent of special ops warfare, McChrystal was discharged after Rolling Stone ran a story in which he ridiculed Vice President Joe Biden and criticized the administration. While Obama denied that he fired the general “out of any sense of personal insult,” few people bought that line.
McChrystal, whose intelligence chief in Afghanistan was Flynn, would need a waiver to be Defense Secretary, too, but he would be almost at the seven-year mark when the new administration takes office. And he could be a candidate for a role other than at DOD. A spokesperson for McChrystal, who now runs an eponymous consulting firm, said today that the ex-general was not granting interviews.
Even Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic representative from Hawaii and Bernie Sanders supporter who met with Trump on Monday and has been mentioned as a candidate for a Cabinet post, has military experience. She is not an ex-general, but she is an Iraq War veteran.