As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump voiced strong support for the United States Armed Forces. Now in office, his relations with the military are somewhat more ambiguous. Marcel Plichta discusses the key issues which have attracted so much attention during the first months of the Trump presidency. 

An examination of the number of generals in President Donald Trump’s cabinet, the treatment of current and former service members, and the use of military force since he assumed office, all offer different glimpses into Trump’s view of the military, and his priorities for taking care of those who serve. Mr Trump’s cabinet has hosted four generals in major cabinet positions: Michael Flynn and H. R. McMaster as former and current National Security Advisors respectively; James Mattis as Secretary of Defense; and John Kelly as Former Secretary of Homeland Security and now the President Chief of Staff.

Many view the appointment of so many generals in senior cabinet positions with apprehension; some see it as as a threat to stable civil-military relations; other fear for the reputations of the men themselves. McMaster in particular is an active duty military officer, sworn to protect the US Constitution, which may make it difficult to defend the Trump administration and fulfil his oath should they conflict. Mr Trump also tends to react poorly to dissent, even from trusted generals.

For instance, McMaster’s request that Trump officials stop using the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ has been ignored by the President, who continues to use the phrase. If relations between them break down over further differences of opinion, it may lead to a damaging policy impasses: as the commentator Tom Ricks has observed,“when the civil-military dialogue is strained, strategy suffers.”

McMaster request that Trump officials stop using the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ has been ignored by the President, who continues to use the phrase.

Despite these concerns, the situation is probably not as alarming as some believe. The most problematic general of the group, Flynn, resigned early in President’s Trump’s term. Of the three remaining, only Kelly finds himself a somewhat unusual position for a general, occupying the position of Chief of Staff. While some has worry that the influence of administration might politicise these men, or that their presence would enable hawkish behaviour from the President, it must be said that they have had a stabilising influence on the otherwise-turbulent Trump administration so far.

As for fears of hawkishness from the military men, James Mattis recently co-authored a op-ed with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging patience and diplomatic solutions to the tensions with North Korea. H.R. McMaster recently fired staffers who wrote and presented a memo to Trump detailing an alleged conspiracy against the President. The three remaining generals echo the rest of Trump’s cabinet in their belief that Russia’s actions against the United States and Ukraine are a credible threat to international security, yet this narrative is one that the President has been hesitant to express. The end result may thus be tempered policies from the administration, even if the rhetoric is at times scathing.


While generals are welcomed into the administration, service members under Trump may be in for several unwelcome surprises. The administration’s efforts to intensify the fight against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, and other countries, have led to a rapid expansion in the number of military operations and a 10 percent proposed budget increase – but not a substantial expansion of funds for the care of America’s military veterans

A recent report from the RAND Corporation indicates that whilst the Military Health System has had many successes, improvements could be made, including “providing adequate follow-up to service members with suicide risk.” This issue is extremely serious: the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 20 veterans commit suicide every day. The suicide rate for female service members is two to five times higher than civilians.

Though his tendency to be penny wise and pound foolish does indicate that such fees may be considered for these and other programs if they reach the President’s desk.

Trump announced in April that “we’re going to take care of [veterans]” and backed up his assertion with a six percent increase in the VA’s budget. In circumstances where the number of Special Forces raids has quadrupled, the war in Iraq and Syria has escalated, and where the administration is considering a surge of up to 4,000 troops in Afghanistan, the number of veterans suffering from physical and mental wounds will continue to rise, and the medical costs of caring for them along with it. The question has been asked whether a six percent rise is sufficient.

Veterans seeking higher education may also face additional hurdles under the new administration. Three years of service in the military currently guarantees a four-year undergraduate education free of charge for service members and ten years of service guarantees the same for immediate family members, the House Veterans Affairs Committee recently proposed a series of enrollment fees to offset the program’s cost, a proposal the Veterans of Foreign Wars called “absurd.”

President Trump, Vice President Pence, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have lunch with service members. Image:

The extent to which Trump would support such a measure is unclear, though his tendency to be penny wise and pound foolish does indicate that such fees may be considered for these, and other, programs if they reach the President’s desk.

One cost that is too great to bear, according to Trump at least, is that of transgender service members. Trump’s unexpected tweets announcing a ban on transgender people serving in the military were met with outrage and confusion by many, some of whom were quick to point out that the cost of allowing transgender people to continue serving is negligible.

A 2016 report by RAND indicated that specific medical coverage for transgender troops would be have an annual cost of between $2.4 million and $8.4 million, an estimate that corroborates a 2015 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, which put the cost at roughly $5 million annually. By comparison, the highest estimate for transgender care is a little over half the cost of procuring a single VH-92A Presidential Helicopter for the President and cabinet members, of which the Department of Defense expects to procure 21 this year.

The extent to which President Trump’s tweets will be translated into policy is unknown. As it stands, the military has stated that it will wait for orders through official channels before implementing any changes.


Trump views the role of the military as a diplomatic tool that is indispensable. The President proposed a $52 billion increase in the military’s budget, while the diplomacy and development under the Department of State and USAID would be cut by a third. He has also increased the amount of special operations missions fourfold, and doubled the amount of munitions dropped during current US military operations. This has led to the number of civilian casualties in areas of American military operation increasing by an alarming amount. While keeping the military in good shape is important, the administration appears to view the military as a solution to almost every international problem; we are currently seeing this in the brinkmanship Trump is displaying towards North Korea and Venezuela.

The extent to which President Trump’s tweets will be translated into policy is unknown. As it stands, the military has stated that it will wait for orders through official channels before implementing any changes. 

The increase in the number of Special Forces missions, coupled with the rise in aerial strikes, indicates a willingness to engage terrorism tactically, but not strategically. The approach has been dubbed “tactical transactionalism”, which means that the focus on small wins actually undermines the greater strategic value of using diplomacy, development aid, and military force to create a proactive doctrine that addresses the root causes of extremism. A case in point: despite rising extremism from cadet branches of ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Sahel region of Africa, and Trump’s rhetoric against terrorism, the administration’s response to a French multilateral initiative to combat the groups was chilly at best.

Trump’s relationship with the military is a complicated one, and it is difficult to reach any definitive conclusions so early on in his presidency. As budget and policy negotiations continue and the administration faces more challenges from abroad, Trump’s priorities for the military, and those that serve in it, will become much clearer.

Marcel Plichta is a postgraduate student studying global security at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. His areas of study include emerging defence trends, defence economy in developing states, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Feature image: Donald Trump shakes hands with General Mark Milley, chief of staff of the Army, at Mr Trump’s inauguration in Washington D.C. January 20, 2017. Image: Master Sgt. Michel Sauret [CC Wikipedia].