With Congress refusing to provide $5.7 billion for his wall on the Mexican border, President Trump has said he may fund it with money diverted from the Defense Department budget, perhaps by using active-duty troops in the construction.
This is a bad idea for several reasons. One is that it’s doubtful a president has the authority to divert funds appropriated by Congress for specific actions by a federal department, even if he declares a bogus “national emergency.” If Trump tries, you can expect legal challenges; even some Republicans might decide it’s time to draw the line.
An alternative plan to use the Army Corps of Engineers for the job may avoid stepping on Congress’s prerogatives, but either way of bringing in the military would take money and manpower away from badly needed construction projects on military bases (126 of which are contaminated with compounds linked to cancer and birth defects).
The third reason is the most dispiriting: This would be the most blatant example to date of Trump using the military as his personal plaything. The president usually professes great respect for the armed forces (while making exceptions for political opponents), but his behavior is more eloquent and says just the opposite.
Upon taking office, Trump referred to “my generals,” reducing his role as commander in chief to an opportunity for boasting. Then, over the course of two years, he fired or humiliated defense secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security secretary turned White House chief of staff John Kelly, and national security adviser H. R. McMaster. (McMaster’s predecessor, Michael Flynn, left in disgrace).
Now the president is reportedly trying, over Mattis’s objections, to force the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joe Dunford, out of the job. Trump overruled Mattis in pulling out of the Iran deal, ignored his opposition to a new Space Force, and caught him off guard with tweets about banning transgender recruits. The last straw for Mattis was the president’s announcement that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and Afghanistan (exactly what this policy amounts to still isn’t clear).
These misguided initiatives and erratic pronouncements are bad in themselves, but they also make it harder for the military to do its job. They leave men and women set to deploy in limbo, those on the front lines uncertain of their role, and commanders on the ground with diminished authority. Most important, they continue the disturbing trend of politicizing the military.
All that’s needed to complete this catalog of disrespect is to revive the idea of a great military parade — supposedly to honor the troops, but in fact to glorify the president. Count the failure to see that those two things aren’t the same as among Trump’s worst derelictions.