Editorial: Trump’s troubling trove
The latest news that a top-secret document describing a foreign government’s military defense readiness, including its nuclear capabilities, was found among the documents at ex-president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence is the proof the public needs to understand why the Department of Justice and the FBI acted as they did.
In hundreds of cases, the documents found were not personal notes or mementos that Trump and his attorneys — and his many political apologists — have sought to portray. Rather, many contained highly sensitive information of national and international importance. They are, by necessity, owned by the government, not by an ex-president. That Trump is so careless with such information and has already demonstrated nefarious uses of information only heightened the government’s concern that Trump’s possession of them could cause irreparable harm — to this country or internationally.
To reason to make this information public is to push back against the GOP’s false narrative that the documents the government sought were of little concern and of little value. Rather, they demonstrate the validity of the government’s action to raid Mar-a-Lago — after, it should be emphasized, the government tried for the past year to have Trump return the stolen documents on his own.
Now that the severity of the crime is coming to light, Trump and his lawyers are trying to create a diversion by suggesting leaks of the nature of the material is unfair and possibly damaging to his reputation, but that’s all nonsense. The nature of the material found at Trump’s residence will be revealed in due time, most likely in a criminal trial, which will show that Trump illegally took the documents out of the White House, and that he and his staff purposely obstructed their retrieval.
Combine his knowing theft of such sensitive information with his demonstrated fondness for dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the gravity of the crime is even more serious.
As former Trump Attorney General William Barr told Fox News this past Friday: “People say this (the FBI raid on Mar-A-Lago) was unprecedented, but it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put them in a country club, okay?”
In short, Trump’s action was careless, reckless and illegal. Sadly, it’s also in character with his four years in office.
As if to add an exclamation mark to Trump’s turbulent term in office, and in particular to his refusal to peaceably relinquish the office in 2020 after legal challenge after legal challenge confirmed President Joe Biden legitimately won the election, over a dozen top Pentagon officials and former defense secretaries released an open letter this week saying that Trump’s refusal to accept his election loss had worsened “an extremely adverse environment” for the U.S. military.
The letter seeks to set in stone the obligation of the military to only obey orders that are “legal” and to emphasize the military’s obligation is to the Constitution and the American people, not to Trump or any other president.
The letter outlines 16 points on the principles that are supposed to define civil-military relations — a rebuke of Trump and his legion of supporters who, as the New York Times wrote, “called on the military to support his false claims that the election was stolen from him.”
In response to what seems to be an increasing misunderstanding of the role of the military by many of Trump’s supporters, the letter tries to explain the role of the U.S. military and its relationship with elected civilian leaders.
“Military officers swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an oath of fealty to an individual or to an office,” the bipartisan group wrote, adding later, “It is the responsibility of senior military and civilian leaders to ensure that any order they receive from the president is legal.”
According to the Times story, “two former defense secretaries who served under Mr. Trump, Jim Mattis and Mark T. Esper, were among those who signed the letter, which was published Tuesday on War on the Rocks, an online platform for analysis of national security and foreign affairs issues.
In part the letter reads:
“We are in an exceptionally challenging civil-military environment. Many of the factors that shape civil-military relations have undergone extreme strain in recent years… Politically, military professionals confront an extremely adverse environment characterized by the divisiveness of affective polarization that culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt. Looking ahead, all of these factors could well get worse before they get better. In such an environment, it is helpful to review the core principles and best practices by which civilian and military professionals have conducted healthy American civil-military relations in the past — and can continue to do so, if vigilant and mindful.
- Civilian control of the military is part of the bedrock foundation of American democracy. The democratic project is not threatened by the existence of a powerful standing military so long as civilian and military leaders — and the rank-and-file they lead — embrace and implement effective civilian control.
- Civilian control operates within a constitutional framework under the rule of law. Military officers swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an oath of fealty to an individual or to an office. All civilians, whether they swear an oath or not, are likewise obligated to support and defend the Constitution as their highest duty.
- Under the U.S. Constitution, civilian control of the military is shared across all three branches of government. Ultimately, civilian control is wielded by the will of the American people as expressed through elections.”
It’s a primer in U.S. civil-military relations, a good civics lesson for all to read — and a welcome refrain to know that many leaders within the military were equally worried by Trump’s all-too-frequent transgressions.
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