Thank God for the generals. No one thought they would turn out to be the moderates in the Trump White House. In an administration riven by staff bickering and internal disputes, President Trump’s senior military appointees are taking a leading role and acting as a restraining influence.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Homeland Security chief John F. Kelly are responsible for cleaning up some of Trump’s early mistakes and steering the ship when it veers off course. If not for them, Trump’s grade on his first 100 days would go from middling to poor.
Trump’s major weakness is that he’s unskilled in public leadership. Needless controversies of his own making have distracted from an agenda that most Americans support. Regulatory reform, pro-growth tax cuts, fair trade, and more jobs have all been eclipsed by Trump’s unproductive fights with his critics.
Quarreling that would embarrass the Hatfields and McCoys has also broken out among members of Trump’s executive staff and close family advisers. Politics in the highest office in the land is no place for soap opera.
This has left an opening for the generals around Trump to bring to bear leadership qualities honed over many years of military service, allowing them to stand out in the process.
McMaster has remade the National Security Council, following the February resignation of General Mike Flynn, who admitted to misleading senior administration staff about his contacts with Russian officials. McMaster orchestrated the removal of White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon from a permanent seat on the NSC, then he banished Flynn deputy K.T. McFarland to an ambassadorship somewhere in Asia.
Bannon, as a politically astute campaign aide, should have known better: Commingling politics with sensitive defense and national security matters is never a good idea. And while she possessed prior government experience, McFarland’s immediate past as a Fox News analyst raised questions about her qualifications.
At Homeland Security, Kelly moved quickly to rewrite the executive order temporarily banning travel to the United States of people from countries with significant terrorist activity. Initially cut out of the loop, Kelly took Iraq off the list, where the government is partnering with the United States to fight Islamic State militants, and clarified that permanent residents and those with valid visas from the remaining six countries are unaffected.
The ban remains tied up in court, but the odds Trump will prevail have improved significantly.
The Pentagon’s Mattis oversaw the Trump administration’s military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against civilians, including women and children, which was notably measured and proportionate. It put the lie to the most common liberal criticism of Trump — that he would trigger a full-scale war the first chance he got.
The expertly executed cruise missile attack not only enforced the red line that President Obama was reluctant to uphold, it sent a strong message that America is reclaiming its leadership position in the world and put human rights back on the foreign policy agenda. Trump as protector of abused Muslim populations is not a role anyone foresaw for him.
Trump’s personal job approval is at historic lows for a new president. His plan to repeal and replace Obamacare remains stalled. Staff bickering and petty inter-office rivalries compete for news of the day. If not for the steadying influence of the generals, and a major legislative victory in winning confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the press would be writing Trump’s epitaph.
Trump is fortunate that he has surrounded himself with leaders of the caliber of Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.