© 2024 South Carolina Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Powers Does Trump Have As Commander In Chief?


For a president who has gone to war with his own intelligence community and members of his own diplomatic corps, it seemed only a matter of time before he would clash with the military establishment he oversees. And here we are. The tension between President Trump and ousted Navy Secretary Richard Spencer started over the handling of a war crimes case. The Navy had moved to strip Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher of his Navy SEAL status after he was convicted of posing with the corpse of an ISIS fighter in Iraq. Navy Secretary Spencer tried to quietly strike a deal with the White House that would allow Gallagher to stay a SEAL as long as the president stayed out of the disciplinary process. And when Defense Secretary Mark Esper found out, he fired Spencer. The former Navy secretary is now speaking out. Here's what he told David Martin of CBS News about the ramifications of the president's interference.


RICHARD SPENCER: What message does that send to the troops?

DAVID MARTIN: Well, what message does it send?

SPENCER: That you can get away with things. We have to have good order and discipline. It's the backbone of what we do.

R MARTIN: We're joined now by Peter Feaver. He's a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University and a former National Security Council official. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

PETER FEAVER: Good morning.

R MARTIN: So we heard Spencer in that clip say that the president's interference sends this message to troops that they can get away with things. But Spencer was reportedly negotiating a side deal with the White House in which the outcome of this disciplinary proceeding would be predetermined - that he would guarantee to President Trump that Gallagher could keep his SEAL status if the president stayed away. What kind of message does that send to the military?

FEAVER: Well, Secretary Spencer was - managed to run afoul of both his bosses. President Trump thought he was foot-dragging on - in terms of not implementing what Trump wanted with the Gallagher case. And Secretary Esper, his direct boss, thought that Spencer was doing an end run and cutting a side deal with the White House that was different from the united front that the secretary of defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley were presenting. And so Spencer ended up being without any allies, and under the president's prerogative to fire anyone who serves at his pleasure, Spencer had to go.

R MARTIN: I want to play a clip of what President Trump said about this case yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: What I'm doing is sticking up for our armed forces. And there's never been a president that's going to stick up for them and has like I have, including the fact that we spent two and a half trillion dollars on rebuilding our armed forces.

R MARTIN: How do you see this? Do you view this as the president, quote, "sticking up" for U.S. forces, or was he interfering in a military process that undermines the military's own values and standards?

FEAVER: Well, the - to me, the most striking feature of this is the extent to which the president was ignoring what appeared to be the unanimous advice of his senior military and civilian leadership who had recommended a different course of action. The president rejected their advice but did so in a very public way that undermined the effect - their effectiveness, their ability to lead the troops and to have the trust of the troops that the troops could know they could stand up and present their views to the White House. And by doing it in such a public way, the president managed to undermine his own team. And I think that's going to be the longer term consequences of this affair. The president won his battle, but the victory might be a Pyrrhic one, where the costs exceed whatever gain he got.

R MARTIN: Just to be clear, though, he didn't - he's allowed to do this. His constitutional powers as commander in chief allow him to override those military officials.

FEAVER: Certainly in the issuing of pardons and clemencies, there's no doubt. There was some debate about whether he could force the military to grant a certification, the SEAL status, to Chief Gallagher. But clearly, Secretary Esper believed that the president had that authority. And under the Constitution, the commander in chief powers are quite vast. So probably the president had the right to do even that. But under the principle of civilian control, President Trump has the right to do these things. That doesn't make them right. He has the right to be wrong, in other words. But when a president exercises that right to be wrong on matters that the military care deeply about, the president tends to pay a price. And I do think there - the price will be paid in terms of a loss of trust between the military and the president. And that trust is the essential ingredient for healthy civil-military relations.

R MARTIN: A number of Republicans from the national security community, you among them, signed letters in 2016 opposing Donald Trump's candidacy and then his presidency. You viewed his positions on issues like torture and war crimes as a threat to American democracy. Three years on, do you think those threats have materialized?

FEAVER: Well, on balance, looking at all he's done, the - it has not been as bad as I feared. But it's not been as good as I hoped. And in the narrow question you're asking me about today, about the president's role as commander in chief, you know, very few presidents start out with a good fingerfeel for the commander in chief role. It's just unusual to - it's a very different role from what most presidents have done before they became president. What is of concern today, though, is most presidents grow in that job; in the third year, they're handling it better than handled it in the first year. And it's not clear that that's the case with President Trump.

R MARTIN: Peter Feaver is a professor of political science at Duke University. Thank you so much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

FEAVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.