Why it matters that Trump wanted to court martial retired officers

Gen. Stanley McChrystal retired as a four-star general in 2010, following a lengthy and decorated military career. At that point, McChrystal was free to speak his mind as a private citizen, and he became tangentially involved in Democratic politics.

Four years later, Adm. William McRaven, perhaps best known to Americans as the Navy SEAL who oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, also retired after a similarly celebrated military career. He, too, became free to share his political perspective, and despite a deeply conservative ideology, McRaven became one of the nation’s most eloquent critics of Donald Trump.

According to former Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s new book, as Trump became aware of their attitudes, he privately condemned the men as “disloyal.” In fact, as The Washington Post reported, Esper described an incident in which the then-president said he wanted to court martial McChrystal and McRaven.

Trump, Esper recounts in “A Sacred Oath,” had developed a disdain for Stanley McChrystal and William H. McRaven, popular and influential leaders who, in retirement, criticized the president. When Trump informed Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of his wish to see McChrystal and McRaven court-martialed, the two Pentagon leaders “jumped to their defense,” Esper writes, arguing that both completed distinguished military careers and that taking such action would be “extreme and unwarranted.”

Part of what makes this so notable is the impracticality of Trump’s scheme: As Talking Points Memo noted, the Republican seemed to realize that it’s impossible to court martial civilians in private life, so the then-president talked to military leaders about the Pentagon recalling the heroic retired officers to active duty so that they could be formally punished.

Obviously, there was no follow-through on this. Esper wrote in his book that he warned Trump that the effort would “backfire,” and as the Oval Office conversation continued, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs eventually pacified the then-president by saying he’d personally reach out to McRaven and McChrystal, and ask them to scale back their political pontificating.

(If Milley actually did contact them, there’s little to suggest that the outreach worked. Two weeks before Election Day, McRaven endorsed Joe Biden. McChrystal told Talking Points Memo he doesn’t recall ever hearing from Milley about this.)

But the fact that Trump sought such punishments is striking evidence of his authoritarian instincts. Two private citizens, who devoted much of their lives to serving the United States, had the audacity to criticize the then-president, as Americans are allowed to do.

From Trump’s perspective, however, this made them “disloyal.” McChrystal and McRaven, the Republican argued, deserved to face retaliation — not because they’d done something wrong, but because they said things that hurt the then-president’s feelings.

It was the same president who had a breathtaking habit of casually accusing others of “treason” for all sorts of reasons — including failing to applaud him to his satisfaction.

Esper told the Post that Trump’s desire to punish McChrystal and McRaven was “obviously disconcerting” and that he considers the two men to be heroes.

“If I wasn’t there and Milley wasn’t there, what would have happened?” he said. “And what would it have done to the military profession for a president to call back to active duty two … retired four-stars and to try and court-martial them for publicly expressing their views?”

As Trump maintains his role as the head of the Republican Party, and weighs another campaign for national office, it’s worth keeping stories like these in mind.

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