Among other developments that are best described as “disturbing,” we learned last week that the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff are now sequestering themselves after being exposed to coronavirus.
Fortunately, as of Friday, they have so far tested negative. Plus, President Trump told them not to be afraid of the virus. So there’s that.
The chiefs include chairman Gen. Mark Milley; Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of Naval operations; Gen. Charles Brown, the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force; and Gen. John Raymond, the chief of space operations. They had attended several meetings with the vice commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Charles Ray, who tested positive on Monday and is now quarantined at home.
We wish them and their families good health. Through long, distinguished careers, they’ve given America enough without having to make the ultimate sacrifice.
We count on the joint chiefs to keep America safe. But the fact that they were exposed to the virus suggests that they’ve not been kept safe in kind. As Trump returned to a White House in which infections continue to brew — we learned of several other infected staff members last week — it’s a reminder of the president’s failure to take the virus seriously and react strongly enough.
And we can’t help wondering if the joint chiefs’ assessment of Trump may match that of other military figures who have been stepping forward.
One day when they have more freedom to speak, they may join the ranks of former U.S. Marine Corps general and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has denounced Trump for misusing the nation's armed forces and dangerously dividing the country.
Or retired four-star Air Force Gen. Chuck Boyd, who spoke extensively to NPR last week. Describing himself as a Republican, “but quietly,” he told NPR, "As I watched (Trump) over the years, my unease with his presidency has increased … to the point that I believe that our democracy will be in shatters by the time he has served two terms."
Boyd is one of nearly 500 generals, admirals and former national security officials from both parties who recently signed a letter that blasted Trump as “not equal” to the challenges of the job and endorsed Democrat Joe Biden for president.
Perhaps the most outspoken of Trump’s former national security advisers is former Gen. H.R. McMaster, who told MSNBC last week that Trump “is aiding and abetting (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s efforts” to intervene in the 2020 presidential contest.
It may be reasonable to write off one or two top military leaders as “disgruntled former employees.” But for so many distinguished career military officers to come forward is a development that shouldn’t be ignored.
Trump says that he may not be that popular with the generals, but that servicemen support him. But according to a Military Times poll released in September, based on a survey of 1,018 active-duty soldiers, more than 41% said they would vote for Joe Biden in 2020 while only 37.4% expressed support for Trump.
Some of the respondents might be thinking about Trump’s own avoidance of military service. They may be aware of Trump’s diversion of $3.8 billion from the Defense Department’s budget in February — money approved by Congress — to bolster his border wall.
They may be aware of Trump’s repeated boasts to have passed the Veterans Choice Act, which President Obama signed into law in 2014 — a claim that smacks of stolen valor.
They’re surely aware of the way Trump has glorified a few military members who were disciplined for improper actions and his disregard for proper military procedure, as exemplified by his announcement Thursday that all U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of the year — which was a surprise to National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien as well as military leaders, who had not been informed.
And, of course, they’re aware of Trump’s fumbling of coronavirus, a national security threat that continues to roil the country.
Or they may simply be aware of the lies, the bluster, the threat to health care, democracy, the rule of law and the very concept of truth that trouble much of the rest of the country.
Trump never misses a public opportunity to tout his support for the military. But his actions haven’t followed his rhetoric. His attitude toward the military has been, like the rest of his presidency, characterized by incompetence and chaos.