When Generals are the adults in the room

Donald Trump

They are known as the ‘adults in the room’, and in Donald Trump’s erratic administration they are seen as a necessary check on the president.

James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and now John Kelly have been installed in top positions by Trump. All three are widely respected generals, and their presence is seen as a safeguard against the president’s worst impulses.

In an administration where posts seem to have been filled ironically (eg. climate change denier Scott Pruitt at the EPA), there was little backlash to installing James Mattis as Secretary of Defense.

Similarly, H. R. McMaster agreed to become National Security Advisor after Michael Flynn was fired. Compared to his predecessor, McMaster was not a controversial appointment.

The latest general to join the Trump ranks is John Kelly, who has come in to replace Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff. This has been widely seen as a positive move, with the former Marine Corps general better equipped than the former Republican National Committee chairman to install order and discipline on the West Wing.

It has been pointed out that Kelly does not have much in common with Trump. The general likes rowdy jokes and whisky, the president has no sense of humour and doesn’t drink. Kelly is known as a man of honesty and integrity, trump as a duplicitous liar. Kelly has dedicated his life to the service of his country, Trump is all about self-enrichment.

But perhaps the freewheeling commander in chief needs a little military discipline. So unpredictable is the Trump White House that people look to a man nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ to be the calm head in the room. Kelly, like Mattis, is there to maintain order and civility. Does something seem wrong here?

Former president Barack Obama was known to micromanage the military from Washington, while Trump is the opposite, deferring to his generals rather than making decisions himself.

Trump’s generals have all earned respect from their years of service, but their relationship with their boss is upside-down. The president is supposed to provide a civilian check on the military, not the other way around.

Trump has storms coming on the domestic and international front: The probe into Russian interference in the 2016 collusions continues, and Trump’s day of reckoning cometh. Whether impeachment is realistic or not, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation will be politically dangerous. When that happens, Trump will be surrounded by enemies, including many in the Republican party.

When the North Korea problem comes to a head, or new entities fill the power vacuum left by the defeat of IS in Syria, Trump will be completely focused on the circus at home and will have little time or energy to second-guess his generals.

With Rex Tillerson’s State Department mostly unstaffed, and an incompetent president leaning more and more heavily on his military advisers, it is becoming clear that the generals are in charge.