In words and in actions, President Donald Trump is increasingly emulating the strongman leaders he has long admired as he seeks to tamp down protests over police brutality that are roiling the United States. In doing so, he is stretching the powers of the American presidency in ways rarely seen, and testing the willingness of the Pentagon to follow along.
His actions have forced a public reckoning among both current and former military leaders, as well as a handful of Republican politicians. Some of their concerns center not only on the actions Trump has already taken, but also on how far he may be willing to go in an election year, particularly if the political winds appear to be moving against him.
“Perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican from Alaska. She added that she was unsure whether she could continue to support the president in November.
The president’s face-off against Democrat Joe Biden will be the ultimate inflection point, a moment when the nation decides whether to shift course or press forward with Trump at the helm for four more years.
The choice between the two men has become increasingly stark as the nation confronts a confluence of public health, economic and civil rights crises, with Trump aggressively embracing the mantle of a “law and order” president in an attempt to project strength in uncertain times. Biden, for his part, has called the election a moral test and a “battle for the soul” of the nation.
Trump made a similar appeal to voters in 2016 and drew support from disaffected, largely white Americans. As commander in chief, he has the extraordinary power of the federal government and military at his disposal to back up tough talk with action.
His willingness to do so has become apparent during the protests that followed the death of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. The demonstrations across the country have been largely peaceful but marred by outbursts of violence.
On Monday night, the president warned in a Rose Garden address that he would deploy active-duty soldiers to the states if local law enforcement and National Guard members couldn’t get control of the protests. As he spoke, officers outside the White House aggressively dispersed a crowd using smoke canisters and pepper balls so the president could walk to a nearby church and pose with a Bible. He was flanked by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who was dressed in combat fatigues.
The stunning scene played out on live television and drew comparisons to crackdowns in authoritarian countries. Trump has long praised the broad powers of leaders in those countries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
Former Pentagon official Kori Schake said Trump's threats to use the military to crack down on American protesters was unsurprising given his past rhetoric and actions. “The military is just the latest American governmental institution to have the president try and erode the democratic norms and crush the institutional independence of the organization,” said Schake, now at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
Still, Trump's words and actions Monday night became a breaking point for some. “Never did I dream that troops ... would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Gen. Jim Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary, wrote in a statement published by The Atlantic. Mattis’ comments were all the more extraordinary given that he has resisted criticizing the president since announcing his resignation in 2018.
It’s unclear whether the warnings this week from Mattis, Murkowski and others carry any sway with voters or signal any broader shift within the Republican Party. Trump faced a similar insurrection among members of the so-called establishment before the 2016 election and ultimately prevailed with a comfortable Electoral College victory. His grip on the GOP has tightened during his more than three years in office given the loyalty of his core backers.
Some of those supporters have publicly closed ranks around the president during the protests, applauding his administration’s heavy-handed response and urging him to take more aggressive actions to quell demonstrations that get out of hand.
“These conditions can shift rapidly in any city across the country and the president needs to have the tools and the equipment and the information needed to move quickly to protect our citizens if that’s what’s necessary,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
Yet it’s clear that the crises battering the nation have shifted the ground beneath Trump. His response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been uneven, and the resulting financial slowdown has upended his plans to run for reelection on the back of a strong economy.
His embrace of a strongman strategy may well be a way to rally his most ardent supporters, appeal to a sense of uncertainty many Americans are feeling and lock down a narrow path to victory in November. Yet it has also left his critics anxious about the steps he may be willing to take between now and then.
“It’s hard to envision any line that Donald Trump won’t cross or anything he won’t do,” said Peter Wehner, a veteran of three Republican administrations and an ardent critic of the president. “The question is whether the system of government, and the people who make up government and the court would be able to check him.”
Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for the AP since 2007. Follow her at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC