Gen. Wesley Clark on Trump and the protests: “We are seeing the turning of the tide”

There have been many moments during the last four years where the United States would have been much better off with no president at all. An empty Oval Office would be preferable to the one now occupied by Donald Trump.

He has made America a pitiable and pathetic country before the world.

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The police murder of George Floyd and the weeks of nationwide and global protests sparked by that incident have again shown Donald Trump to be a reckless, illegitimate, corrupt, and incompetent president, with authoritarian and fascist goals. Donald Trump cannot “rise to the occasion” or be “presidential” in the face of such a moral reckoning because he is fundamentally incapable of human care or concern for others.

Because Donald Trump is obsessed with power and pathologically addicted to violence and destruction, he has repeatedly threatened protesters with mayhem or murder. Trump has also told governors to “dominate” the protesters and has said he may that he may invoke the Insurrection Act, which dates to the early 19th century and has rarely been used. 

Trump has also ordered his paramilitary forces — both the police and other law enforcement officers as well as his “MAGA Army” of thugs — to put down the protests and the people’s uprising. He has defiled the White House by surrounding it with miles of fences and (at least in his mind) a personal Praetorian guard of military, National Guard, Secret Service, FBI, Bureau of Prisons, Border Patrol and ICE officers. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times describes this horrible scene:

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It’s sad to see the tall black fences going up around the White House, turning the “People’s House” into an outpost as dark as the psyche of the man who lives within. 

In response to Trump’s threats against the American people, some of the U.S. military’s highest-ranking admirals and generals, as well as other senior national security officials — both active duty and retired — have begun to speak out against his misdeeds. 

They have warned that Trump is behaving like the most dangerous tyrants of history. In a unified chorus over the last few days, Trump has been described as a threat to American democracy and the Constitution. In an almost unprecedented move, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a memo reminding America’s military personnel that their loyalty is to the Constitution, not to any one individual who happens to hold political power.

Eighty-nine former high-ranking defense officials, both military and civilian — including four former secretaries of defense — signed a letter that appeared in Friday’s Washington Post, condemning Donald Trump for betraying his oath to defend the U.S. Constitution.

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During a Sunday appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretary of State Colin Powell described Trump as a liar who has “drifted away” from the U.S. Constitution, and “demonized” America in the eyes of the world.

CBS has reported that Donald Trump, Attorney General Barr and other senior White House officials wanted to deploy 10,000 active duty soldiers in Washington and other American cities to crush the protests.

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In an effort to circumvent what they feared would be an illegal order, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Milley of the Joint Chiefs pushed back against Trump’s wishes, successfully outmaneuvering him through the use of National Guard forces to police the protests.

Is the United States experiencing a crisis in military and civilian affairs? What would have happened if Trump or Barr had ordered the military to take action against the American people? Would the officers and soldiers have followed his orders, and potentially used lethal force against U.S. citizens? How does Trump’s reaction to these protests reveal his failures as a leader and the importance of the upcoming presidential election?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe, who is perhaps best known for commanding Operation Allied Force, NATO’s campaign to end ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Clark is now a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations and director of the Atlantic Council. His many honors and awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Commander of the Legion of Honor (France).

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Clark’s essay “Can The Liberal World Order Survive Another Four Years of Trump? was recently featured in a special issue of the Washington Monthly.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How are you feeling given the extreme and tumultuous state of the country right now under Donald Trump?

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I feel very uncomfortable. There are several reasons why. First, because we have seen three and a half years of chaos at the top levels of the government, the arguments with our allies, the perplexing policy towards North Korea and the fights with China. There is also partisanship and the ugly divisiveness that Donald Trump has inflamed in the American political system, and Trump’s failure to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump is also trying to maintain control of the political narrative in these months before the election and he is doing this through chaos. It is really a very a difficult time for many people in America. Trump’s lack of leadership on racial issues is especially painful. In fact, instead of being a leader on questions of racial equality Donald Trump appears to be doing everything possible to inflame these issues. 

If these events were happening in another country, America’s politicians and news media would describe it as being a “failed state” and an “embarrassment.”

Yes, there would be a great deal of condemnation. However, when we approach these issues one should always keep it in perspective. The majority of the people in this country do not follow foreign affairs closely. Foreign affairs is the province of the country’s leaders, where they are tasked with steering the right course by keeping us out of war and advancing America’s interests.

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If America were another country right now, outside analysts and other observers would be saying, “Boy, the United States is in turmoil. They are having a difficult time.” But the United States is a long way from being a failed state. We are the most powerful country in the world.

People are making a big mistake if they think America cannot come together despite Donald Trump and all the troubles the country is presently experiencing.

How do you evaluate Donald Trump as a leader?

Trump is a very good example of what not to do and be as a leader. He doesn’t take responsibility. He doesn’t build trust. He doesn’t bring people together. He doesn’t do his homework and understand the details of the decisions he’s making. He doesn’t think through the strategic consequences.

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Donald Trump is a transactional leader. He thinks that being president of the United States is the same as buying real estate. Donald Trump also believes that he can use reckless rhetoric and that there will not be any consequences. In both international and domestic politics, language has consequences. Trump’s abusive language is very problematic.  

Reliability and consistency are very important. Trump does not have those qualities.

As the president of the United States, he represents the whole country. The United States has spent 75 years since the end of World War II assuring the world that we had strong values and that was true across administrations. America also made sure the world understood that we were reliable. President Trump has discarded those values.  

You served as NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe. You commanded forces during the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia. You have had to make life-and-death decisions. Trump is threatening to unleash the United States military on the American people. If you had to give Trump some counsel, what would you tell him? He needs help and wisdom, because he is incapable of thinking about these life-and-death issues in a mature way.

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I did offer Donald Trump advice. I wrote an op-ed on leadership for CNN. There I strongly advised him to build trust, take responsibility and look at the long-term in terms of his behavior and leadership. I knew I could not get my op-ed to him personally. But I did give a copy to a friend of Trump’s to pass along.

Donald Trump believes in himself first and foremost. He trusts his instincts. One cannot argue with the fact that has served him well — he is president of the United States. Many good people wanted to be president of United States and were not able to achieve that goal. He did. Trump should be proud of himself for what he accomplished just in terms of getting elected.

Trump’s problem is that as president you have to grow as a person and leader. Nobody is ever truly prepared to be president of the United States. That is true regardless of one’s previous experience. If you don’t read, if you don’t listen, if you don’t reflect on the broader environment in which you’re making the decisions, if you don’t think long-term, then as president you are not going to make the right decisions. That has been the problem with Donald Trump.  

In these last few days, retired admirals and generals as well as senior civilian military leaders have spoken out against Trump’s threats to use the American military against the American people. Is America in the midst of a crisis in civilian and military affairs?

I do not believe that we are in a crisis in civil and military relations. I do believe there would be a crisis if we pursued the course that Mr. Trump has laid out for us, which is putting the military in the streets and making an enemy of the American people. We do not want the American people to look at the United States military as their enemy. Likewise, we do not want the United States military to look at the American people as their enemy. That is the crisis we are trying to avoid right now.

The situation with the generals is a bit different. The Republican Party has always loved generals. For Donald Trump it was a natural thing for him to be attracted to generals as a way of buttressing his own credibility and demonstrating his power. Remember Trump’s use of the language “my generals.” And of course, nothing could be more wrong than that.

These generals have served under multiple presidents. They’ve been in the military 25 or, in some cases, 35 years. The generals are nominated by the Department of Defense and, at the highest level, in consultation with the president and then confirmed by the Senate. America’s generals are not loyal to the president of the United States. Their loyalty is not personal; it is to the Constitution and to the commander in chief.

These generals and other high-ranking career public servants have learned, to their sorrow, that Donald Trump is a very difficult person to work for. And so, if they had principles, they were fired or they quit because somebody in the room has to be the adult and tell Trump, “Don’t do this. It’s going to be trouble.” Trump does not want to hear that.

Of course, no president wants to be criticized. But most successful people have learned that a little bit of criticism forces you to think and then make better decisions. You may also learn something new from other people as well. That does not appear to be true for Donald Trump. People who speak up are isolated and then cut off by Donald Trump.

What would you tell Trump about invoking the Insurrection Act in order to put down the protests now taking place across the country in response to the apparent murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers?

I would tell Donald Trump not to do it. This is absolutely the last course of action you want to take. Because you want the local authorities who understand, who know each other, to go in and work out the problem. Only as a last resort, when everything else has failed, when nothing else will work, would you ever invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy active duty U.S. forces on American territory.

And if a president were to order such a course of action, it should only be after those forces are properly trained and prepared. The streets of the United States are not Afghanistan. If you want to make an enemy of the American people, you put the uniformed armed services in America’s cities and tell them to “fix bayonets” and, as one senator recently said, “take no quarter.” If you want a fight, then you will get a fight. That is not the way to resolve the problems America is experiencing right now with protests.

The way to resolve this challenge is at the lowest possible level with the least possible use of force. If there are some people who are breaking the law by looting and starting fires and what have you, then use the police to identify and arrest them.  

Most of the protesters are people who sincerely believe that America must live up to its professed values and to this point has not been doing a good job of that.

The issue of racial intolerance by America’s police has become more prominent. One can see the shift in public opinion. We have to bring the country together and resolve these problems of racial and other forms of social injustice and not try to use the military to force them back into hiding.

If at some point Trump does order America’s military to take aggressive action against protesters, do you believe that the soldiers will listen?

The outcome would depend on the time and circumstances. The military instinct is to follow orders. But once that begins our soldiers are going to be out in the street looking at their fellow Americans who are standing across from them and holding signs that say, “Black Lives Matter.” Our soldiers will likely think to themselves, “What am I doing here?”

That kind of dissonance builds over time. The soldiers will likely follow through the first time. Maybe the second time. But over time you cannot continue to issue such orders because they erode the ability, the cohesion and the mission orientation of the armed forces. Such orders to act against fellow Americans will destroy the armed forces and also their ability to recruit. The United States military is ultimately a volunteer force. The only reason it can exist in that form is because people admire the United States and want to join the country’s armed forces.

Donald Trump understands this. He knows that the military is the most admired institution in the United States, far more admired than he is, or the United States Congress for that matter. Trump will do anything he can to associate himself with the United States military.

Right now, the top leaders in the United States military are trying to make sure that everybody understands that the U.S. military is nonpolitical. It is to be used for domestic disturbances as a last resort. The American people are not the enemy.

That’s where we are right now. And within the ranks, I’m sure if you go to a mess hall or you talked to people at one of the clubs off base, there are lots of discussions right now. I imagine that the tenor and tone of those conversations are about how our military personnel are not too happy about what the president did, but they’re still going to follow orders at this point.

What would you tell the American people about the 2020 presidential election and Donald Trump?

What’s at stake in the 2020 election is America’s future in the world and the United States Constitution.

America’s future in the world depends on alliances. It depends on the economy. It’s dependent on our educational system, our health care system, and other social institutions. And President Trump has taken all those institutions in the wrong direction. But worse than that, he’s worked to undermine the professionalism of the American civil service. Donald Trump has politicized the courts.

This gets to the fundamental questions of, are we a government of laws or are we a government of men? Is the American government like a mafia where you apply coercion to get the outcome Trump and the Republicans want? Or do we follow the laws? America was founded so that we would have a country of laws and not live under the tyranny of an all-powerful ruler.

The great risk in the 2020 election is ultimately that the wrong person, Donald Trump, is re-elected.

The American people and the world have already seen the horrible and dangerous pattern of Trump’s choices. We know which way he’s going to take the country. It’s a familiar pattern for how democracies fail. Democracy mutates over time as certain groups acquire excessive power and then use that power to consolidate their hold on a government.

What I hope we will see on Election Day is that the American people will be able to turn the ship of state around a little bit, a few degrees. Let’s bring the country back to where there is more emphasis on community and less emphasis on selfish individualism. We’re in this together. Ordinary people should have more access to the fruits of American society.

 If the United States is going to be a great country in the 21st century — and remain as a great country — we’ve got to live up to our values. It’s about “We the people.” It’s about equal rights. It’s about treating people fairly and uniformly without regard to the color of their skin.

What we are seeing emerging now in the United States is the turning of the tide. And I think we are moving into an era in the United States when we can go forward with greater respect for each other and greater appreciation for the value of diversity, the value of community and the importance of the public welfare as opposed to just the private welfare.

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