A pattern of policy pronouncements with little or no notice ‘adds an extra layer of instability and stress,’ says one former top defense official.
President Donald Trump’s flair for the unpredictable has taken a toll on his defense leaders, handing them orders and major policy shifts with little or no notice — ranging from his transgender ban, a military parade and a separate Space Force to his musings about reducing U.S. troop strength in Europe or intervening in Venezuela.
Last week added the specter that another capricious decree may be in the works, when the Russian military reported that President Vladimir Putin and Trump had reached a private agreement at their Helsinki summit to join forces to rebuild war-torn Syria. Such a deal would mark a major change for the U.S. troops battling the Islamic State, who are barred by law from cooperating with Russian troops fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime.
The top U.S. commander in the region, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, told reporters he has received “no such direction at this point,” nor has he requested permission to do so. “I have not asked for that at this point and we’ll see what direction comes down.”
Previously, surprise directives from the commander in chief have demanded significant attention from top officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. And they have almost never involved what the Pentagon considers top priorities.
Former officials also say Trump’s impulsive decrees undercut the administration’s effort to reverse the White House micromanaging of the military that commanders grumbled about during the Obama administration.
Before Trump, “you certainly never had a directive coming straight from the president via Twitter,” said a former senior defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military officials he knows. “That adds an extra layer of instability and stress to an organization that is already under a lot of stress.”
Loren Schulman, who served in the Pentagon and on the National Security Council under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said past administrations had “a policy process where you don’t spring really big changes on the Pentagon with no warning at all.”