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Someone Please Remind the Defense Department Who is President

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Trump’s disruptive style of politics was never going to be an easy sell in Washington. In a city where ossified norms are treated like monuments to American politics’ former glory, the president’s rebellious, smash the idols style, to say nothing of the fact that his agenda aimed to smash all the idols of DC groupthink, was anything but an obvious fit. Making the process even more difficult was the fact that any administration will have its policy defined by its personnel, and the number of personnel available who could both pass a Senate confirmation, and who would be willing and able to implement a Trumpian agenda, were vanishingly small. 


Obviously, President Trump couldn’t do everything himself, so he compromised and brought in people who sort of looked like the kinds of people he’d fill his administration with. Maybe. If you squinted. And to give the president credit, as his administration has gone on, he has become wiser about his choice of people, to the point that now his administration is actually changing not just the rules of the Washington game, but also the norms surrounding policy, though perhaps slower than people would like.

However, even as the Justice Department, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Human Services, etc, have trended Trumpian over the past few years, one extremely important part of his administration has seemingly never made peace with which president they serve under. I’m talking about the Department of Defense. 

And in fairness, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Trump’s initial choice to run the Defense Department was the universally respected James “Mad Dog” Mattis who, despite being by all accounts a gifted warrior and scholar, positively crawled with unease about serving under Trump. Some accounts even claim that Mattis was planning to mount a primary challenge to the president, and there are more than a few prepared to believe that Mattis penned the infamous anonymous New York Times op ed claiming that Trump had to be constrained by his own administration due to lack of character. When Mattis storomed out of the administration over President Trump’s plan to fulfill his campaign promise to withdraw from Syria, it was hardly a surprise, and for Trump supporters, it was a welcome reprieve.


But it wasn’t just the Syrian conflict where Mattis wanted the Trump administration to pursue a strategy that arguably emboldened its enemies while wasting American military resources. That distinction also belongs to his aborted attempt to hand Amazon the keys to all of the Defense Department’s intelligence resources, seemingly without even considering other options. Granted, Amazon may still get the keys to that kingdom, possibly due to bribing Pentagon officials, but at least they have had to fight an actual open bidding process, and may yet lose out to Microsoft. Mattis, on the other hand, was so bedazzled after one meeting with Jeff Bezos that he nearly gave the company the contract outright. It says a lot that Mattis could be so besotted with the man who owns a newspaper whose mission appears to be to attack his own boss, but leave that be.

Mattis may be gone, but his former deputy and now successor, Patrick Shanahan, gives no indicator of walking away from the interventionist, spendthrift ways of Mattis himself. Shanahan has already signed onto the ill-starred military escalation against Iran, for example. And despite President Trump’s campaign trail criticism of the F-35 joint strike fighter program, the DoD is still pursuing the 20-year, $1.5 trillion money sink. To give just a little context, the F-35 is supposed to be an “invisible” fighter with more advanced navigation technology than any previous plane used by the US military. What it actually is, is an unwieldy, unflyable mess, whose management and logistics software is so bad that pilots and training instructors have stopped using it. But to give the illusion that “all is well and there is nothing to see here,” pilots are made to say and pretend they use it, then manually re-enter by hand into old legacy systems everything they have done a second time, lest their planes get no proper maintenance. Pilots who fly the F-35 report severe pain and nausea after the fact, and in order to fix the plane’s problems with weight, Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s manufacturers, have stripped out essential safety equipment. To call it the Ford Pinto of fighter jets is unfair to the Pinto.


To be fair to Shanahan, President Trump has sounded confused about the F-35 at times, though that may be the president’s salesman’s instinct at work, given that Japan has expressed interest in buying the plane, and President Trump is not one to pass up business for American manufacturers. But even if the president wants to encourage the sales of US products, there’s no reason for his own administration to fall for the pitch. 

Either way, these examples demonstrate a troubling trend within Trump’s defense department: namely, a twin fixation on American military intervention and on spending money on counterproductive, dangerous, and wasteful technology that actually does little to improve the safety of everyday Americans. These sops to defense contractors may have been the norm in pre-Trump Washington, but there’s precious little reason for the disrupter-in-chief’s Pentagon to be running the kind of $640 toilet seat-style spending that characterized past administrations. Someone please remind America’s defense apparatus who’s president, because maybe if they can get that through their skulls, they might also remember whose tax dollars they work for in the first place.

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