[Vision2020] Trump on the Generals: They are a bunch of "dopes and babies"
ngier006 at gmail.com
Fri Jan 17 12:08:27 PST 2020
carol.leonnig at washpost.com
philip.rucker at washpost.com
excerpts from "A Very Stable Genius"
There is no more sacred room for military officers than 2E924 of the
Pentagon, a windowless and secure vault where the Joint Chiefs of Staff
meet regularly to wrestle with classified matters. Its more common name is
“the Tank.” The Tank resembles a small corporate boardroom, with a gleaming
golden oak table, leather swivel armchairs and other mid-century stylings.
Inside its walls, flag officers observe a reverence and decorum for the
wrenching decisions that have been made there.
Hanging prominently on one of the walls is The Peacemakers, a painting that
depicts an 1865 Civil War strategy session with President Abraham Lincoln
and his three service chiefs — Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Major
General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. One
hundred fifty-two years after Lincoln hatched plans to preserve the Union,
President Trump’s advisers staged an intervention inside the Tank to try to
preserve the world order.
By that point, six months into his administration, Secretary of Defense
Jim Mattis, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had grown alarmed by gaping holes in
Trump’s knowledge of history, especially the key alliances forged following
World War II. Trump had dismissed allies as worthless, cozied up to
authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere, and advocated withdrawing
troops from strategic outposts and active theaters alike.
Trump organized his unorthodox worldview under the simplistic banner of
“America First,” but Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn feared his proposals were
rash, barely considered, and a danger to America’s superpower standing.
They also felt that many of Trump’s impulsive ideas stemmed from his lack
of familiarity with U.S. history and, even, where countries were located.
To have a useful discussion with him, the trio agreed, they had to create a
basic knowledge, a shared language.
So on July 20, 2017, Mattis invited Trump to the Tank for what he,
Tillerson, and Cohn had carefully organized as a tailored tutorial. What
happened inside the Tank that day crystallized the commander in chief’s
berating, derisive and dismissive manner, foreshadowing decisions such as
the one earlier this month that brought the United States to the brink of
war with Iran. The Tank meeting was a turning point in Trump’s presidency.
Rather than getting him to appreciate America’s traditional role and
alliances, Trump began to tune out and eventually push away the experts who
believed their duty was to protect the country by restraining his more
The episode has been documented numerous times, but subsequent reporting
reveals a more complete picture of the moment and the chilling effect
Trump’s comments and hostility had on the nation’s military and national
Just before 10 a.m. on a scorching summer Thursday, Trump arrived at the
Pentagon. He stepped out of his motorcade, walked along a corridor with
portraits honoring former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, and stepped inside
the Tank. The uniformed officers greeted their commander in chief. Chairman
of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. sat in the seat of honor
midway down the table, because this was his room, and Trump sat at the head
of the table facing a projection screen. Mattis and the newly confirmed
deputy defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, sat to the president’s left,
with Vice President Pence and Tillerson to his right. Down the table sat
the leaders of the military branches, along with Cohn and Treasury
Secretary Steven Mnuchin. White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon
was in the outer ring of chairs with other staff, taking his seat just
behind Mattis and directly in Trump’s line of sight.
Mattis, Cohn, and Tillerson and their aides decided to use maps, graphics,
and charts to tutor the president, figuring they would help keep him from
getting bored. Mattis opened with a slide show punctuated by lots of dollar
signs. Mattis devised a strategy to use terms the impatient president,
schooled in real estate, would appreciate to impress upon him the value of
U.S. investments abroad. He sought to explain why U.S. troops were deployed
in so many regions and why America’s safety hinged on a complex web of
trade deals, alliances, and bases across the globe.
An opening line flashed on the screen, setting the tone: “The post-war
international rules-based order is the greatest gift of the greatest
generation.” Mattis then gave a 20-minute briefing on the power of the NATO
alliance to stabilize Europe and keep the United States safe. Bannon
thought to himself, “Not good. Trump is not going to like that one bit.”
The internationalist language Mattis was using was a trigger for Trump.
“Oh, baby, this is going to be f---ing wild,” Bannon thought. “If you stood
up and threatened to shoot [Trump], he couldn’t say ‘postwar rules-based
international order.’ It’s just not the way he thinks.”
For the next 90 minutes, Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn took turns trying to
emphasize their points, pointing to their charts and diagrams. They showed
where U.S. personnel were positioned, at military bases, CIA stations, and
embassies, and how U.S. deployments fended off the threats of terror cells,
nuclear blasts, and destabilizing enemies in places including Afghanistan,
Iran, Iraq, the Korea Peninsula, and Syria. Cohn spoke for about 20 minutes
about the value of free trade with America’s allies, emphasizing how he saw
each trade agreement working together as part of an overall structure to
solidify U.S. economic and national security.
Trump appeared peeved by the schoolhouse vibe but also allergic to the
dynamic of his advisers talking at him. His ricocheting attention span led
him to repeatedly interrupt the lesson. He heard an adviser say a word or
phrase and then seized on that to interject with his take. For instance,
the word “base” prompted him to launch in to say how “crazy” and “stupid”
it was to pay for bases in some countries.
Trump’s first complaint was to repeat what he had vented about to his
national security adviser months earlier: South Korea should pay for a $10
billion missile defense system that the United States built for it. The
system was designed to shoot down any short- and medium-range ballistic
missiles from North Korea to protect South Korea and American troops
stationed there. But Trump argued that the South Koreans should pay for it,
proposing that the administration pull U.S. troops out of the region or
bill the South Koreans for their protection.
“We should charge them rent,” Trump said of South Korea. “We should make
them pay for our soldiers. We should make money off of everything.”
Trump proceeded to explain that NATO, too, was worthless. U.S. generals
were letting the allied member countries get away with murder, he said, and
they owed the United States a lot of money after not living up to their
promise of paying their dues.
“They’re in arrears,” Trump said, reverting to the language of real estate.
He lifted both his arms at his sides in frustration. Then he scolded top
officials for the
untold millions of dollars he believed they had let slip through their
fingers by allowing allies to avoid their obligations.
“We are owed money you haven’t been collecting!” Trump told them. “You
would totally go bankrupt if you had to run your own business.”
Mattis wasn’t trying to convince the president of anything, only to explain
and provide facts. Now things were devolving quickly. The general tried to
calmly explain to the president that he was not quite right. The NATO
allies didn’t owe the United States back rent, he said. The truth was more
complicated. NATO had a nonbinding goal that members should pay at least 2
percent of their gross domestic product on their defenses. Only five of the
countries currently met that goal, but it wasn’t as if they were shorting
the United States on the bill.
More broadly, Mattis argued, the NATO alliance was not serving only to
protect western Europe. It protected America, too. “This is what keeps us
safe,” Mattis said. Cohn tried to explain to Trump that he needed to see
the value of the trade deals. “These are commitments that help keep us
safe,” Cohn said.
Bannon interjected. “Stop, stop, stop,” he said. “All you guys talk about
all these great things, they’re all our partners, I want you to name me now
one country and one company that’s going to have his back.”
Trump then repeated a threat he’d made countless times before. He wanted
out of the Iran nuclear deal that President Obama had struck in 2015, which
called for Iran to reduce its uranium stockpile and cut its nuclear
“It’s the worst deal in history!” Trump declared. “Well, actually . . .,”
Tillerson interjected. “I don’t want to hear it,” Trump said, cutting off
the secretary of state before he could explain some of the benefits of the
agreement. “They’re cheating. They’re building. We’re getting out of it. I
keep telling you, I keep giving you time, and you keep delaying me. I want
out of it.”
Before they could debate the Iran deal, Trump erupted to revive another
frequent complaint: the war in Afghanistan, which was now America’s longest
war. He demanded an explanation for why the United States hadn’t won in
Afghanistan yet, now 16 years after the nation began fighting there in the
wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Trump unleashed his disdain, calling
Afghanistan a “loser war.” That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not
only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in
uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were
sworn to obey their commander in chief’s commands, and here he was calling
the war they had been fighting a loser war.
“You’re all losers,” Trump said. “You don’t know how to win anymore.” Trump
questioned why the United States couldn’t get some oil as payment for the
troops stationed in the Persian Gulf. “We spent $7 trillion; they’re
ripping us off,” Trump boomed. “Where is the f---ing oil?”
Trump seemed to be speaking up for the voters who elected him, and several
attendees thought they heard Bannon in Trump’s words. Bannon had been
trying to persuade Trump to withdraw forces by telling him, “The American
people are saying we can’t spend a trillion dollars a year on this. We just
can’t. It’s going to bankrupt us.”
“And not just that, the deplorables don’t want their kids in the South
China Sea at the 38th parallel or in Syria, in Afghanistan, in perpetuity,”
Bannon would add, invoking Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of
deplorables” reference to Trump supporters.
Trump mused about removing General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in
charge of troops in Afghanistan. “I don’t think he knows how to win,” the
president said, impugning Nicholson, who was not present at the meeting.
Dunford tried to come to Nicholson’s defense, but the mild-mannered general
struggled to convey his points to the irascible president.
“Mr. President, that’s just not . . .,” Dunford started. “We’ve been under
Dunford sought to explain that he hadn’t been charged with annihilating the
enemy in Afghanistan but was instead following a strategy started by the
Obama administration to gradually reduce the military presence in the
country in hopes of training locals to maintain a stable government so that
eventually the United States could pull out. Trump shot back in more plain
“I want to win,” he said. “We don’t win any wars anymore . . . We spend $7
trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.”
Trump by now was in one of his rages. He was so angry that he wasn’t taking
many breaths. All morning, he had been coarse and cavalier, but the next
several things he bellowed went beyond that description. They stunned
nearly everyone in the room, and some vowed that they would never repeat
them. Indeed, they have not been reported until now.
“I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump told the assembled brass.
Addressing the room, the commander in chief barked, “You’re a bunch of
dopes and babies.”
For a president known for verbiage he euphemistically called “locker room
talk,” this was the gravest insult he could have delivered to these people,
in this sacred space. The flag officers in the room were shocked. Some
staff began looking down at their papers, rearranging folders, almost
wishing themselves out of the room. A few considered walking out. They
tried not to reveal their revulsion on their faces, but questions raced
through their minds. “How does the commander in chief say that?” one
thought. “What would our worst adversaries think if they knew he said
This was a president who had been labeled a “draft dodger” for avoiding
service in the Vietnam War under questionable circumstances. Trump was a
young man born of privilege and in seemingly perfect health: six feet two
inches with a muscular build and a flawless medical record. He played
several sports, including football. Then, in 1968 at age 22, he obtained a
diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels that exempted him from military
service just as the United States was drafting men his age to fulfill
massive troop deployments to Vietnam. Tillerson in particular was stunned
by Trump’s diatribe and began visibly seething. For too many minutes,
others in the room noticed, he had been staring straight, dumbfounded, at
Mattis, who was speechless, his head bowed down toward the table. Tillerson
thought to himself, “Gosh darn it, Jim, say something. Why aren’t you
But, as he would later tell close aides, Tillerson realized in that moment
that Mattis was genetically a Marine, unable to talk back to his commander
in chief, no matter what nonsense came out of his mouth.
The more perplexing silence was from Pence, a leader who should have been
able to stand up to Trump. Instead, one attendee thought, “He’s sitting
there frozen like a statue. Why doesn’t he stop the president?” Another
recalled the vice president was “a wax museum guy.” From the start of the
meeting, Pence looked as if he wanted to escape and put an end to the
president’s torrent. Surely, he disagreed with Trump’s characterization of
military leaders as “dopes and babies,” considering his son, Michael, was a
Marine first lieutenant then training for his naval aviator wings. But some
surmised Pence feared getting crosswise with Trump. “A total deer in the
headlights,” recalled a third attendee.
Others at the table noticed Trump’s stream of venom had taken an emotional
toll. So many people in that room had gone to war and risked their lives
for their country, and now they were being dressed down by a president who
had not. They felt sick to their stomachs. Tillerson told others he thought
he saw a woman in the room silently crying. He was furious and decided he
couldn’t stand it another minute. His voice broke into Trump’s tirade, this
one about trying to make money off U.S. troops.
“No, that’s just wrong,” the secretary of state said. “Mr. President,
you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.”
Tillerson’s father and uncle had both been combat veterans, and he was
deeply proud of their service.
“The men and women who put on a uniform don’t do it to become soldiers of
fortune,” Tillerson said. “That’s not why they put on a uniform and go out
and die . . . They do it to protect our freedom.”
There was silence in the Tank. Several military officers in the room were
grateful to the secretary of state for defending them when no one else
would. The meeting soon ended and Trump walked out, saying goodbye to a
group of servicemen lining the corridor as he made his way to his motorcade
waiting outside. Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn were deflated. Standing in the
hall with a small cluster of people he trusted, Tillerson finally let down
“He’s a f---ing moron,” the secretary of state said of the president.
The plan by Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn to train the president to
appreciate the internationalist view had clearly backfired.
“We were starting to get out on the wrong path, and we really needed to
have a course correction and needed to educate, to teach, to help him
understand the reason and basis for a lot of these things,” said one senior
official involved in the planning. “We needed to change how he thinks about
this, to course correct. Everybody was on board, 100 percent agreed with
that sentiment. [But] they were dismayed and in shock when not only did it
not have the intended effect, but he dug in his heels and pushed it even
further on the spectrum, further solidifying his views.”
A few days later, Pence’s national security adviser, Andrea Thompson, a
retired Army colonel who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, reached out to
thank Tillerson for speaking up on behalf of the military and the public
servants who had been in the Tank. By September 2017, she would leave the
White House and join Tillerson at Foggy Bottom as undersecretary of state
for arms control and international security affairs.
The Tank meeting had so thoroughly shocked the conscience of military
leaders that they tried to keep it a secret. At the Aspen Security Forum
two days later, longtime NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked
Dunford how Trump had interacted during the Tank meeting. The Joint Chiefs
chairman misleadingly described the meeting, skipping over the fireworks.
“He asked a lot of hard questions, and the one thing he does is question
some fundamental assumptions that we make as military leaders — and he will
come in and question those,” Dunford told Mitchell on July 22. “It’s a
pretty energetic and an interactive dialogue.”
One victim of the Tank meeting was Trump’s relationship with Tillerson,
which forever after was strained. The secretary of state came to see it as
the beginning of the end. It would only worsen when news that Tillerson had
called Trump a “moron” was first reported in October 2017 by NBC News.
Trump once again gathered his generals and top diplomats in December 2017
for a meeting as part of the administration’s ongoing strategy talks about
troop deployments in Afghanistan in the Situation Room, a secure meeting
room on the ground floor of the West Wing. Trump didn’t like the Situation
Room as much as the Pentagon’s Tank, because he didn’t think it had enough
gravitas. It just wasn’t impressive.
But there Trump was, struggling to come up with a new Afghanistan policy
and frustrated that so many U.S. forces were deployed in so many places
around the world. The conversation began to tilt in the same direction as
it had in the Tank back in July.
“All these countries need to start paying us for the troops we are sending
to their countries. We need to be making a profit,” Trump said. “We could
turn a profit on this.”
Dunford tried to explain to the president once again, gently, that troops
deployed in these regions provided stability there, which helped make
America safer. Another officer chimed in that charging other countries for
U.S. soldiers would be against the law.
“But it just wasn’t working,” one former Trump aide recalled. “Nothing
Following the Tank meeting, Tillerson had told his aides that he would
never silently tolerate such demeaning talk from Trump about making money
off the deployments of U.S. soldiers. Tillerson’s father, at the age of 17,
had committed to enlist in the Navy on his next birthday, wanting so much
to serve his country in World War II. His great-uncle was a career officer
in the Navy as well. Both men had been on his mind, Tillerson told aides,
when Trump unleashed his tirade in the Tank and again when he repeated
those points in the Situation Room in December.
“We need to get our money back,” Trump told his assembled advisers.
That was it. Tillerson stood up. But when he did so, he turned his back to
the president and faced the flag officers and the rest of the aides in the
room. He didn’t want a repeat of the scene in the Tank.
“I’ve never put on a uniform, but I know this,” Tillerson said. “Every
person who has put on a uniform, the people in this room, they don’t do it
to make a buck. They did it for their country, to protect us. I want
everyone to be clear about how much we as a country value their service.”
Tillerson’s rebuke made Trump angry. He got a little red in the face. But
the president decided not to engage Tillerson at that moment. He would wait
to take him on another day.
Later that evening, after 8:00, Tillerson was working in his office at the
State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters, preparing for the next day.
The phone rang. It was Dunford. The Joint Chiefs chairman’s voice was
unsteady with emotion. Dunford had much earlier joked with Tillerson that
in past administrations the secretaries of state and Defense Department
leaders wouldn’t be caught dead walking on the same side of the street, for
their rivalry was that fierce. But now, as both men served Trump, they were
brothers joined against what they saw as disrespect for service members.
Dunford thanked Tillerson for standing up for them in the Situation Room.
“You took the body blows for us,” Dunford said. “Punch after punch. Thank
you. I will never forget it.”
Tillerson, Dunford, and Mattis would not take those body blows for much
longer. They failed to rein in Trump’s impulses or to break through what
they regarded as the president’s stubborn, even dangerous insistence that
he knew best. Piece by piece, the guardrails that had hemmed in the chaos
of Trump’s presidency crumpled.
In March 2018, Trump abruptly fired Tillerson while the secretary of state
was halfway across the globe on a sensitive diplomatic mission to Africa to
ease tensions caused by Trump’s demeaning insults about African countries.
Trump gave Tillerson no rationale for his firing, and afterward acted as if
they were buddies, inviting him to come by the Oval Office to take a
picture and have the president sign it. Tillerson never went.
Mattis continued serving as the defense secretary, but the president’s
sudden decision in December 2018 to withdraw troops from Syria and abandon
America’s Kurdish allies there — one the president soon reversed, only to
remake 10 months later — inspired him to resign. Mattis saw Trump’s desired
withdrawal as an assault on a soldier’s code. “He began to feel like he was
becoming complicit,” recalled one of the secretary’s confidants.
The media interpretation of Mattis’ resignation letter as a scathing rebuke
of Trump’s worldview brought the president’s anger to a boiling point.
Trump decided to remove Mattis two months ahead of the secretary’s chosen
departure date. His treatment of Mattis upset the secretary’s staff. They
decided to arrange the biggest clap out they could. The event was a
tradition for all departing secretaries. They wanted a line of Pentagon
personnel that stretched for a mile applauding Mattis as he left for the
last time. It was going to be “yuge,” staffers joked, borrowing from
But Mattis would not allow it. “No, we are not doing that,” he told his
aides. “You don’t understand the president. I work with him. You don’t know
him like I do. He will take it out on Shanahan and Dunford.”
Dunford stayed on until September 2019, retiring at the conclusion of his
four-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of Dunford’s
first public acts after leaving office was to defend a military officer
attacked by Trump, Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a National
Security Council official who testified in the House impeachment inquiry
about his worries over Trump’s conduct with Ukraine. Trump dismissed
Vindman as a “Never Trumper,” but Dunford stepped forward to praise the
Purple Heart recipient as “a professional, competent, patriotic, and loyal
officer. He has made an extraordinary contribution to the security of our
By then, however, Trump had become a president entirely unrestrained. He
had replaced his raft of seasoned advisers with a cast of enablers who
executed his orders and engaged his obsessions. They saw their mission as
telling the president yes.
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