Twelve times Trump surprised the Pentagon

Twelve times Trump surprised the Pentagon
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President TrumpDonald TrumpMeghan McCain: Democrats 'should give a little credit' to Trump for COVID-19 vaccine Trump testing czar warns lockdowns may be on table if people don't get vaccinated Overnight Health Care: CDC details Massachusetts outbreak that sparked mask update | White House says national vaccine mandate 'not under consideration at this time' MORE has routinely kept the Defense Department out of the loop in administration decisions that seem to cause confusion and throw into doubt where the United States stands on national security issues.

Since Trump took office a year and a half ago, Pentagon officials have been blindsided by sudden policy change announcements including the military’s transgender ban, threats to nations including Syria, Iran and North Korea and moves to create entire new military branches such as the Space Force.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Trump says Gen. Milley 'last person' he'd want to start a coup with Overnight Defense: Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld dies at 88 | Trump calls on Milley to resign | House subpanel advances Pentagon spending bill MORE and other Pentagon officials have sought to downplay any lack of coordination, blaming the news cycle for hyping an overblown story.


But internal emails released this week have given a glimpse into the Pentagon’s frenzied response to an unforeseen tweet from Trump or statement from the White House. 

Those Pentagon emails — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the watchdog group Democracy Forward — show that the White House did not coordinate with or notify DoD officials before it released a 2017 statement warning the Syrian government it would “pay a heavy price” if it conducted another chemical weapons attack.

The narrow channels of communication between the White House and Pentagon are all the more startling when it comes to major global events, including the summit in Singapore between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which have major implications that ripple outward across the globe.

At that meeting, which Mattis did not attend, Trump reportedly shocked Pentagon officials as well as ally countries when he agreed to temporarily halt military drills on the Korean peninsula in exchange for continued talks on a denuclearized North Korea.

And weeks after the Helsinki summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, defense officials still struggle to articulate what supposed “verbal agreements” were made between the two that might affect the military.

Frustrated with the lack of coordination, Mattis has drafted a letter to national security adviser John Bolton to request that he hold more meetings between White House officials and department heads to “to smooth the bubble” on tricky issues, a senior administration official told Politico this week.

Here are the major times the Pentagon appeared to have been caught off guard by Trump.

July 22: Trump’s Iran tweet


Trump administration officials appeared reluctant to clarify the unexpected tweet, but Mattis said a day later that it was meant to make clear to Tehran “that they’re on the wrong track.”

Neither Mattis nor Pentagon spokespeople have said whether the military would be adjusting its forces in the region to deal with any fallout from Trump’s tweet, including bolstering protections.

July 16: The Trump- Putin meeting

Only translators were present at the more than two-hour meeting between Trump and Putin, and there have been vague answers on what exactly was discussed and agreed to.

Defense officials have struggled to explain statements coming out of Moscow that the two leaders made agreements involving national security issues, including on Syria and Ukraine.

Mattis told reporters earlier this week that the Pentagon will not be doing anything different until Trump and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Poll: Trump leads 2024 GOP primary trailed by Pence, DeSantis Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE “have further figured out at what point we’re going to start working alongside our allies with Russia in the future.”

And on Friday he said “no policy changes” were made at the meeting.

July 11 and 12: NATO Summit

Trump — who has long demanded that NATO countries pay more for defense — earlier this month rattled the NATO summit in Brussels when he demanded that all countries “immediately” hit a goal to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense spending. Such a milestone was agreed to by NATO nations at the 2014 summit in Wales, but isn’t meant to be reached until 2022.

The president also told other leaders behind closed doors that he wants them to spend 4 percent of their GDPs on defense, a target even the U.S. does not meet.

Furthermore, Trump raised the possibility that the U.S. would withdraw from the transatlantic alliance it helped create if other members, in his view, continue to treat the U.S. unfairly by failing to meet defense spending targets.

Mattis, reportedly unaware of the specific demands Trump would make, has sought to dismiss speculation that Pentagon officials were doing damage control with allies following the summit. Mattis called such reports “fascinating.”

June 18: Trump directs Pentagon to create “Space Force”

The president unexpectedly announced that he was directing the Pentagon to create a “Space Force” as its sixth military service branch.

The Pentagon released a sparse statement shortly after, saying the officials “understand the President's guidance.”

Mattis, who opposed the idea the year before, later told reporters that Trump’s “space force” will require work with Congress that has not yet started. 

Military heads have warned it would be premature to create a separate space entity, and that it would add burdensome bureaucracy to the service.

June 12: Temporary halt to military drills on Korean peninsula

The Pentagon insisted that Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford were consulted on Trump’s announcement that the Pentagon will hold off on military exercises with South Korea during ongoing nuclear disarmament negotiations with North Korea.

Trump, who made the announcement at the meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said the exercises will stop “unless and until” negotiations go poorly.

But the Pentagon, which has asserted the drills as essential to military readiness, struggled to quickly release a statement on which exercises would be halted or scaled back, and officials said new guidance wasn’t given.

Responses from other ally countries, including South Korea and Japan, indicated that Trump's announcement came as a surprise.

April 2: National Guard border deployment

Trump appeared to take his own administration by surprise in April when he made the announcement that he wanted to deploy U.S. troops to guard the southern border with Mexico until his proposed wall is built.

“Until we can have a wall and proper security, we are going to be guarding our border with the military,” he said.

In the wake of the announcement, Pentagon officials struggled to answer questions on how many troops would be deployed, how much such an endeavor would cost and where the funds would come from.

March/April: Trump hints withdrawal of US troops from Syria ‘very soon’

Trump in late March stunned an audience in a speech about infrastructure with a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that the United States will “be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.”

A week later he reiterated, “I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.”

The president reportedly butted heads with his military advisers, who warned about the possibility that ISIS and potential other terrorist groups will surge back in Syria if the United States leaves the country.

February 2018: Trump’s military parade

The Pentagon confirmed in February that Trump had directed military officials to begin planning a military parade. Trump is said to have been inspired by the Bastille Day parade he saw when he visited France last year, and wanted a similar event at home.

The parade, set for Nov. 10, is still in the beginning planning stages. The date has already been changed once and questions still remain on how much it will ultimately cost – the estimate is now at $12 million — and where the funds will come from. There is also reportedly little desire for the event outside the White House.

July 26, 2017: The transgender ban tweets

Trump in a series of morning tweets said he would ban transgender people from any military service.

He said he had made the decision after consulting with “my generals and military experts.”

No military or national security official has yet to come forward as advising Trump on such a move, and Mattis was on vacation at the time, calling into doubt the Pentagon’s level of involvement in the decision.

Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley later said he learned of Trump’s decision from the news.

June 26, 2017: White House statement threatening Syrian government

Internal Pentagon emails first reported on this week by Buzzfeed News show that the White House did not coordinate with or notify Pentagon officials before it released a statement warning that the Syrian government would “pay a heavy price” if it conducted another chemical weapons attack.

“We woke up to the statement. [White House] did not coord with us or [Joint Chiefs of Staff] or [State Department] from what I can tell,” top Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told Kevin Sweeney, chief of staff to Mattis.

Mattis and White were on a plane to Germany when the White House released the statement.

2017-2018 Tough talk on North Korea

Trump throughout 2017 and into early 2018 fired off a series of increasingly provocative statements aimed at North Korea that alarmed national security officials and experts. Most notably, he threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if the country continued to threaten the U.S.

He also dubbed Kim as “Rocket Man,” and said that his administration's options toward North Korea are “effective and overwhelming.”

January 2017: Trump’s travel ban

Trump shortly after taking office signed an executive order that prohibits foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for at least 90 days, including Iraq.

The ban caused headaches for the Pentagon, which uses Iraqis as interpreters and in other roles and has granted them special immigrant visas.

Mattis in response crafted a list of Iraqis who worked with the U.S. military who he believed should be exempt from the executive order.

Officials also argued the ban put a strain on U.S.-Iraqi relations, potentially hindering the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Trump administration has defended the order as necessary to protect the United States from would-be terrorists, but in March signed a revised travel ban that excludes Iraq.