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Noah Millman On The Military's Dilemma Over Sharing Sensitive Information With Trump


In the middle of the controversy over what President Donald Trump said or didn't say to high-level Russian visitors last week, the administration has relied on national security adviser H.R. McMaster to defend the president. In fact, John Nagl, who has known General McMaster for a long time and worked with him on counterinsurgency strategy, told us the fate of the world could be in McMaster's hands as the administration goes further into what he described as free-fall mode.


JOHN NAGL: And H.R. McMaster is exactly the man the nation needs to have at the center of things in the White House to hold all the pieces together.

MARTIN: But columnist Noah Millman says that's not a good thing. In a recent column for The Week, Millman argues that even though McMaster and other generals in his Cabinet are storied leaders with sterling reputations, letting them steer the ship is dangerous for our democracy. Noah Millman joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

NOAH MILLMAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Take us through your argument. You say that if it's true President Trump shared classified information with the Russians, the U.S. military and the intelligence agencies now face a dilemma over what information to share with the president.

MILLMAN: Sure. To step back just a second, you have to think about what the status of the relationship between military and civilian was prior to this moment. Donald Trump has appointed a number of recently retired senior military officers to key civilian positions, and he's given the military an extraordinary degree of authority over operations much more so than previous presidents. Now we add on to that the fact that the military leadership and the civilian leadership have reason to believe that the president can't be trusted with the sort of information that he needs to be able to make these sorts of decisions.

Feels to me like a real Rubicon has been crossed such that the incentives all line up for people like McMaster to manage the president to such a degree that he's not really making independent decisions. And I think it's obvious the problem that poses for civilian control of the military.

MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit more about that because people like General McMaster or Jim Mattis, secretary of defense. These are people who Democrats or critics of Donald Trump have said, oh, at least those guys are there. They're the grown-ups in the room.


MARTIN: This should reassure us.

MILLMAN: Well, it should reassure us in the short term, right? If you have somebody - if their assessment of Donald Trump is correct - and in my opinion it is based on what I've - everything I've read and from what I hear from people who know people inside the administration - if he's not capable of discharging the responsibilities of his office, then we should be reassured that there are grown-ups in charge. Except that under the Constitution, they're not supposed to be in charge.

And to make a comparison, towards the end of Watergate, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger instructed if anyone received an order from the president to launch a nuclear counterattack, they should not follow that order without first checking with him or with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He was worried about the mindset of Richard Nixon in the final days of Watergate as he was drinking heavily, et cetera.

We're basically in a similar situation right now, except we're not dealing with a short-term crisis we're several months, we're several - we're only a short period into a presidency. If that sort of a situation lasts for four years, what's going to be left of civilian control of the military at the end of the Donald Trump administration?

MARTIN: How do you fix the trust gap? I mean, even if it comes out that President Trump didn't perhaps reveal classified information, is the perception by the intelligence communities and the military such that the trust gap is just going to remain?

MILLMAN: I think your question really can be turned into, how do you change Donald Trump? If that's not possible, then the question changes to, how do you change the administration in a way that does the least damage to American democracy?

MARTIN: Noah Millman is a columnist for The Week. He's also senior editor at The American Conservative. Noah, thanks so much.

MILLMAN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.