(Bloomberg Opinion) — President Donald Trump’s wholesale removal of the top civilian leadership of the Defense Department almost certainly isn’t the coup-in-the-making that some of his critics have alleged. Even so, the purge threatens to inflict lasting damage on America’s national security — unless Congress is prepared to rein the president in.
Trump’s post-election firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper was not wholly unexpected. Esper had objected publicly to the president’s suggestion that active-duty troops be deployed to quell domestic unrest over the summer, and expressed support for renaming military bases that honor Confederate generals, an idea that the boss opposes. The White House also dismissed Esper’s former chief of staff and the undersecretaries overseeing policy and intelligence, while installing hardline Trump loyalists in their place.
It’s not obvious what the housecleaning amounts to — other than an opportunity for Trump to settle personal scores and for his allies to pad their resumes. The possibility that the president’s men could order the uniformed military to intervene to keep Trump in office is remote in the extreme. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, has repeatedly said that the military has no role to play in American elections and senior commanders would surely refuse to follow unlawful orders. Esper’s replacement, Christopher C. Miller, is a longtime veteran of the Army Special Forces who would undoubtedly be averse to any last-gasp attempt by the president to misuse active-duty troops for political purposes.
Even so, a degree of concern is justified. For one thing, the shakeup has already accelerated the administration’s heedless race to withdraw U.S. troops from missions around the world. On Nov. 17, Trump ordered the Pentagon to reduce the number of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to 2,500 by Jan. 15, down from 4,500 in Afghanistan and 3,000 in Iraq. This threatens to destabilize both countries, expose the remaining U.S. forces to additional danger, violate the wishes of America’s NATO allies, and undermine President-elect Joe Biden’s administration by reducing its leverage against U.S. adversaries.
Meanwhile, the upheaval within the chain of command may compromise the Pentagon’s ability to respond to an unexpected crisis precipitated by a foreign power or terrorist organization. With the department’s senior leaders removed and Trump largely disengaged from his responsibilities as commander in chief, the new appointees may also have wider latitude to engage in freelance policymaking — even, in an extreme scenario, by authorizing military action against Iran, a prospect Trump has reportedly explored since losing the election.
While the true motives behind Trump’s purge of the Pentagon remain unclear, leaders of both parties should proceed with caution. Congressional Republicans should warn the White House not to further destabilize the country’s national-security leadership. They should also ask for public assurances from Trump or his national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, that the administration does not intend to fire Milley, individual service chiefs, or the heads of combatant commands, whose appointments typically span presidential administrations. House Democrats, for their part, should demand testimony or subpoena relevant documents if it appears that the new hires are engaged in any misconduct on the president’s behalf.
Until this month, the Defense Department had been largely spared from the damage caused by Trump’s four-year assault on government institutions. The president has now signaled the Pentagon is vulnerable to his self-serving caprice as well. Congress shouldn’t stand for it.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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