President Donald Trump says he has given U.S. military commanders “total authorization” to make complex combat decisions, a move that alarms some senior Democratic members and national security experts.
The commander in chief revealed a major policy shift from the Obama administration, which was heavily involved in strategic and tactical decisions, on a late Thursday afternoon in mid-April. The news dominated the cable airwaves for a few hours, then was quickly overshadowed by self-inflicted wounds and eventually, an ever-escalating series of bombshells related to possible ties between Moscow and Trump’s campaign and transition teams.
“What I do is I authorize my military,” Trump told a press pool on April 13 after senior U.S. commanders in Afghanistan decided to drop the largest conventional munition since World War II. “We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done a job as usual. We have given them total authorization and that’s what they’re doing and, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately.”
Other stories — such as the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, and a string of reports suggesting everything from questionable conversations between Trump associates and Russian officials, to ones that raise questions about whether the president obstructed justice — have since dominated newspaper headlines and cable news chyrons.
But on Capitol Hill, Democrats who closely monitor national security matters, have not forgotten that remark. Nor have they been able to pry any clarification from the White House about just how involved the commander in chief is in strategic and tactical decisions — the smallest of which can have major unintended consequences if missions go awry.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, called Trump’s statement and role in combat considerations “very vague.”
“By definition, he’s commander in chief so I would think that that’s not the way I would phrase delegation of authority to subordinates if I were commander in chief,” Reed said. “It’s difficult to understand his involvement. Whether he wants to be briefed before [an operation] or briefed after or briefed at all, I don’t know.”
Asked whether Trump understands the role of the presidency, Reed said of his panel’s Democratic members and staff: “We’re still trying to perceive that.”
His Armed Services counterpart in the House, Washington Rep. Adam Smith, said he has “deep concerns” that Trump could further erode civilian control over the military.
“You really have the military making decisions that were designed to be made by the civilian authorities running the military,” Smith said. “We’ve seen an increase in civilian casualties. … I think they’ve become a little too indiscriminate in what they’re doing.”
A White House National Security Council spokesman had not responded to a request for comment at press time.
A return to form
Republican members who track national security and military matters were quick to defend the president, saying Trump merely ended eight years of his predecessor’s micromanagement of battlefield decisions.
“I don’t think he’s giving them total authority,” Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain of Arizona said last week. “But he needs to do a lot different from what [Barack] Obama did, which was disgraceful.”
McCain, who has criticized some of the president’s national security moves, said Trump is merely freeing military commanders to make “tactical decisions.” That’s largely based on the president’s trust in Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general with combat experience, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster, an active-duty Army three-star general who also has seen combat.
Asked if his understanding is that Trump remains involved in the military’s decision-making processes, McCain replied: “Oh, yeah. Yeah.”
Missouri GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, called Trump’s move “very much in line with our military when it functioned at its best. … The tactical decisions, whether they were made by Lyndon Johnson or Barack Obama, never turned out to be very good.”
“I think the National Security Council was way too involved over the last eight years. If you look back at World War II, President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt was very involved in the overall strategic planning,” Blunt said. “He was not involved at all in the tactics that the military would decide to use to achieve those goals. I think that’s the way the military works best. The president can reassert himself at any time.”
Former national security officials and analysts say Republicans have a strong case in arguing that Trump has merely put battlefield decision-making back in the hands of experts. But they warn that a military command structure with true “total authorization” could overstep — creating major headaches for any delegating commander in chief.
Christine Wormuth, Pentagon policy chief during the Obama administration, said “some flexibility for theater commanders is probably useful.”
“Decisions that would have gone to the White House in the Obama administration are … now being made at the Pentagon with consultation of the combatant commanders,” she said of Trump’s “total authorization” approach. As examples, she pointed to decisions such as troop levels in certain parts of Iraq and Syria, or force movements in a specific theater.
The president “clearly has a lot of confidence in his generals,” Wormuth said. “He is clearly very comfortable with Secretary Mattis. He naturally feels comfortable with the four-star generals. It’s almost like he’s willing to, by association alone, have confidence in them because he has confidence in Mattis.”
Could it backfire?
Still, she sees reasons to worry, saying that “too long of a leash is problematic” because “we are fundamentally a nation that has civilian control of the military. On major decisions about the use of force, the president must be accountable.”
Paul Scharre, also a former Pentagon official, said Trump’s instinct to “delegate authority and then hold his people accountable is, frankly, a good thing.”
“Trump has shown in the business world and in television, as well as in the White House already, that he’s willing to fire people if they’re not doing the right thing,” Scharre said. (To that end, on Tuesday morning, a White House official confirmed that Trump accepted the resignation of communications director Mike Dubke after just three months on the job.)
“Like any good management practice, you don’t want people at the top micromanaging things at the bottom,” Scharre said. “But there is so much potential for things to go wrong. … We’ve already seen some cases already that have led to more civilian casualties in places like Mosul [in Iraq]. Now, folks at the White House clearly aren’t losing a lot of sleep over that, but this could backfire on him.”
Smith said Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee are mulling possible legislative moves that would require the commander in chief to remain involved in combat decisions. He said the panel’s version of the fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill would be a possible vehicle for such provisions, but declined to get into specifics.
Really, there is nothing lawmakers can do, said Gordon Adams, a former White House national security official who has studied civilian control of the military.
“This is not a problem of law or statute. This could be a problem of an inattentive presidency,” he said. “I don’t know how you legislate that. … Congress’ instinct is to make the presidency smaller, not bigger.”
Experts agree that one major military operation orchestrated by uniformed commanders could lead Trump to tighten the reins.
“There’s a reason the president is called commander in chief: It’s a military rank,” Adams said. “It’s the job of the White House and the president to think through the broader implications of any military step.”