Jun 28, 2020

The problem Trump’s West Point speech can’t fix, CNN.com

The problem Trump's West Point speech can't fix Peter Bergen Opinion by Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst "Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His new book is "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN." (CNN)On Saturday, President Trump delivered a commencement speech at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, honoring the graduating cadets for their service while touting the "colossal rebuilding" of the armed forces under his presidency. "To the 1,107 who today become the newest officers in the most exceptional Army ever to take the field of battle, I am here to offer America's salute. Thank you for answering your nation's call," he said. What wasn't immediately apparent from his speech -- which Trump delivered with the help of a teleprompter -- was the growing disconnect between the President and the US military. Not since President John F. Kennedy ignored his top military officers' advice to invade Cuba and deploy nuclear weapons against the Soviets during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis has there been such a split between an American president and the Pentagon. Consider that Trump's top military adviser General Mark Milley publicly said it was a "mistake" for him to have appeared in an infamous photo op with the President after a walk from the Rose Garden at the White House. The photo op, which culminated in Trump holding up a bible outside St. John's Church, was made possible by first violently dispersing peaceful protesters outside the White House two weeks ago. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued the apology in a video commencement address to the National Defense University on Thursday and said, "I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics." Trump's Defense Secretary Mark Esper also tried to distance himself from that photo op. The former US Army officer publicly broke with the President and said he did not support Trump's calls to invoke the Insurrection Act and use active duty troops to quell the protests that had broken out after George Floyd's killing. CNN reported that Esper's statement went over "poorly at the White House, where his standing was already viewed to be tenuous." Around the same time, Esper's predecessor, retired General Jim Mattis, broke his long silence and launched a personal attack on the President he served for two years. He said, "Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership." To top it off, four former chairmen of the joint chiefs, going back to the administration of President George H. W. Bush, all took the extraordinary step of publicly breaking with the President to condemn the use of violence against peaceful protestors. For good measure one of those former chairmen, retired General Colin Powell, told CNN's Jake Tapper that Trump lies "all the time." Many other retired four-star generals and admirals have spoken out against Trump. There is a widespread perception that Trump is quite popular within the US military. But many active duty personnel have soured on him, and Trump's chairman of the joint chiefs and his defense secretary have publicly distanced themselves from the President -- as have some of the nation's most revered retired generals and admirals. President Trump has long thrilled to the power of the US military, which he celebrated in Saturday's West Point speech. But he is now in the unusual position of being the Commander in Chief of a military that is turning away from him. This article was updated to clarify the scope of the President's photo op, which began at the White House and culminated outside St. John's Church.