History has shown that it’s an unspoken rule for the commander in chief to take responsibility for the deaths of U.S. troops abroad, even if he wasn’t involved in the planning or the execution of whatever mission went awry.
President Donald Trump, however, has broken with that tradition, instead choosing to pass the buck to his generals.
He told reporters on Wednesday that he wasn’t the one to specifically order the Oct. 4 mission in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers, indirectly implicating the generals in charge of the operation instead.
“I have generals — they are great generals,” he said on Wednesday. “I gave them the authority to do what’s right so that we win. That’s the authority they have. I want to win and we’re going to win.”
He has used this strategy of heaping praise on U.S. generals but also subtly turning them into scapegoats before.
When Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens died in a botched raid in Yemen several days after Trump took office, he pinned the tragedy on his predecessor and the military even though he was the one to personally give the raid the green light.
“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something that was, you know, just — [the generals] wanted to do,” Trump told Fox News. “And they came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected. And they lost Ryan.”
But as the most senior military leader in the U.S. chain of command, should responsibility fall to the president no matter what? Experts argue that the answer is unequivocally yes.
“Instead of acting like a commander in chief and commanding responsibility for all of the troops when something goes wrong, he says, ‘Well, that’s on the generals,’” David Rothkopf, senior fellow in American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told HuffPost. “He wishes to benefit from the association as far as it takes him, using them as a firewall.”
“This sort of abdication of responsibility and accountability isn’t unique to Trump; it is a common practice of poor leaders ― accept a credit, assign all blame,” said Micah Zenko, a Chatham House Whitehead senior fellow. “It is just wholly unprecedented for an American president in modern history.”
Tommy Vietor, former National Security Council spokesman under Obama, said that as commander in chief, “the responsibility for success and failure ends with him.”
“But every time he’s asked to comment on casualties or an operation that goes badly,” Vietor added, “he pushes responsibility onto his military leadership. It’s weak and cowardly and shows a lack of accountability.”
What’s clear is that Trump places an unusual amount of faith in his generals, to the point of bringing on several as his closest advisers.
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, is a retired four-star Marine general. Defense Secretary James Mattis is also a retired general ― he even had to receive a waiver to be confirmed for the position because he retired less than seven years ago. His national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, is an active-duty Army officer.
“Never have so many generals served at once in such positions of authority,” Council on Foreign Relations fellow Max Boot wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this week. “This has raised concerns about whether soldiers and Marines are usurping prerogatives best left to civilians.”
In March, Trump began offering the military more autonomy to pursue counterterrorism missions by loosening some restrictions on operations in parts of Africa as well as Yemen. Under Obama, any proposed airstrike away from conventional war zones like Iraq and Syria required stringent interagency vetting.
“What I do is I authorize my military... We have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing,” Trump said in April.
On the one hand, Rothkopf said, Trump’s decision to give more leeway to the generals may have been an effort to respond to the military’s criticisms of the Obama administration ― “that it micromanaged and it tied the hands of the military.”
“It’s very important and very helpful for us to have a little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of the decision-making process,” said Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the top officer at Africa Command. “It allows us to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion.”
But this approach also allows Trump to sidestep responsibility.
“It allows him to say ‘Look how pro-military I am,’ but at the same time, he gives himself an out,” Rothkopf said. “He gives himself the ability to say ‘If something goes wrong, go see them.’”
Rothkopf doesn’t think the strategy will sit well with the American public.
“I don’t think the American people ― or the people of the world ― are ready to dissociate the commander in chief from the actions of the militaries he commands,” he said. “At end of the day, he may say it’s on them, but it’s on him.”
This story has been updated to include Rothkopf’s comments.