The Military Doesn’t Seem to Appreciate Trump’s Border Stunt

U.S. Army troops from Fort Riley, Kansas install protective wire along the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border on November 2, 2018 in Hidalgo, Texas.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

President Trump’s decision to deploy thousands of active-duty soldiers to the border with Mexico, ostensibly to defend against an “invasion” of asylum seekers from Central America, is such a transparent political stunt that even his fellow Republicans are dismayed — if only because they think it’s a less effective midterms strategy than focusing on the midterms. As it turns out, another group you might generally expect to support the president is also less than thrilled with his order: namely, the military itself.

Responding to criticism of the dubious deployment last week, Defense Secretary James Mattis demurred: “We don’t do stunts in this department.” The soldiers being sent to the border are there to provide support to the Department of Homeland Security, just as they often do after natural disasters, Mattis insisted. The secretary did not speak to the question of whether a dwindling caravan of around 3,000 Central American asylum seekers, currently 800 miles from the border and traveling on foot, really merited the same emergency response as a hurricane.

Since then, several reports have come out showing that Trump’s original vision for the deployment, tendentiously titled Operation Faithful Patriot, was larger in scope than what the Pentagon ultimately allowed, as some of what the president expected the soldiers to do was at best wasteful and at worst illegal. The administration’s first request, CNN reported on Friday, was for soldiers to provide “crowd and traffic control” and protect Customs and Border Protection personnel, which some Defense officials viewed as law enforcement activities the military is barred by law from performing. That request was rejected, as was a proposal that soldiers construct housing for detained migrants, according to Reuters.

Nonetheless, over 4,800 troops have already arrived at the border and that number is expected to grow to around 7,000. Trump has said he is prepared to send as many 15,000, which would be more than the 14,000 currently deployed in Afghanistan. The Pentagon has not released an estimate of how much this border-security theater production will cost, but anonymous officials have leaked initial estimates in the vicinity of $200 million to $220 million. That’s all on top of the over 2,000 National Guardsmen who are at the border as well.

That’s an awful lot of money for the army to do … what, exactly? The Constitution and federal law strictly circumscribe the duties the armed forces can perform in a domestic context. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning told reporters that the troops would be performing support tasks like building housing for Customs and Border Protection personnel and erecting barriers along the border; other than military police, they won’t be carrying weapons, and they won’t be performing crowd-control tasks or even coming into contact with protesters or migrants at all.

Mattis and the top brass at the Pentagon may not be at liberty to speak against Trump’s order even if they disagree with it, but former military leaders haven’t held their tongues about how stupid they think this operation is. Former secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called it “political distraction of the highest magnitude,” lamenting that thousands of highly trained American soldiers were being sent “to a border where there is no need, no threat.” Several retired generals, including Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have also spoken out against the mobilization of military resources to serve blatantly political ends, calling it both wasteful and dangerous.

Trump has characterized the caravan of asylum seekers as an “invasion,” making dark and largely unsubstantiated allusions to gang members, terrorists, and other dangerous elements among them. Military planners don’t see it that way, however: They expect only about 20 percent of the roughly 7,000 migrants the caravan started out with to eventually make it to the U.S. border, and for them to pose little security threat when they do. Indeed, the main risks identified in the military assessment leaked last week are from traffickers taking advantage of the U.S. government’s focus on the caravan, and from unregulated armed militias showing up at the border, getting into gun fights and stealing equipment from the National Guard.

Trump, as recently as Sunday, was praising these “Bikers for Trump” and lumping them in with the military and law enforcement as executors of his political agenda. Surely, though, if there’s one thing military types enjoy less than a pointless mission, it’s having to babysit a bunch of cowboy cosplayers who show up to ostensibly “help” with that mission. The opinions of active-duty soldiers are hard to gauge, but GQ’s Jay Willis spoke to a few of them who agreed with Hagel and Dempsey that Operation Faithful Patriot is a waste of resources, a political ploy, and a subversion of American values.

Trump has never enjoyed especially robust support among active-duty service members, with his favorability only slightly higher among the military than among the general public. While typically a Republican president who has made a big show of expanding the defense budget and giving soldiers raises would expect to win a great deal of support, Trump’s numbers have been dragged down by low levels of support among servicewomen, minorities, and the highly educated officer corps. A Military Times survey released just last month found that his support among active-duty military personnel has been declining, with 43.1 percent disapproving of the president, compared to 37 percent two years ago. His favorables are just barely higher, at 43.8 percent.

With this election-eve spectacle on the border, Trump is hoping to leverage the popularity of the armed forces and get some of it to rub off on himself and his party. He probably wasn’t counting on the possibility that his plan could backfire, souring the service against a commander-in-chief who wastes their resources and uses them as political pawns. If Trump respects the military as much as he claims, he’s got a funny way of showing it.