President Trump has spent three and a half years persuading his supporters that the only reason his own officials constantly expose his conduct and warn the public of his unfitness for office is that he is the target of a deep state cabal. Yesterday, he extended the cabal to include a powerful new branch: the leadership of the armed forces. Pentagon brass, he insinuated, have told reporters he made disparaging comments about military service only because he threatens the profits of the military-industrial complex: “I’m not saying the military’s in love with me — the soldiers are, the top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,”
In short order, Mollie Hemingway, Glenn Greenwald (who was retweeted by Trump himself), and Russia Today — the holy trinity of pro-Trump trolling — scrambled to cast Trump’s remarks as merely echoing Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex.
One of the favorite gambits of Trump’s defenders is to insist that national security professionals only oppose him because he stands athwart the American empire. And it is certainly true that military leaders disagree with some of Trump’s policies: his opposition to NATO, his betrayal of the Kurds, admiration of Russia, and (in some cases) desire to accelerate removal of troops from Afghanistan. Some of the most intense military opposition has come from the conviction by military leaders that he threatens its culture by encouraging war crimes and using troops as a domestic propaganda weapon, including to attack peaceful protesters. (By the way, it’s not true that “the soldiers” are “in love” with Trump — a Military Times poll shows his approval rating underwater and him narrowly trailing Joe Biden among active-duty service members.)
It is also true that American military brass cycle in and out of the top defense contractors in a way that corruptly incentivizes them to support higher spending. But the notion that this is the reason, or even a reason, for their opposition to Trump is completely ludicrous.
Trump is not a threat to the Pentagon budget. He has lavished as much money on defense as he can get from Congress, and boasts constantly that he “rebuilt” it after Barack Obama supposedly exhausted its entire supply of ammunition. If Trump is concerned about the influence of defense lobbyists on the Pentagon’s decision-making, it’s odd that he picked a top corporate lobbyist for Raytheon to serve as his current Defense secretary.
Trump has frequently cited the profits from arms sales as the main reason for the United States to continue supporting Saudi Arabia. Asked in 2018 about cutting off sales to the kingdom after its brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, he replied, “Well, I think that would be hurting us. We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before. Part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems, and everybody’s wanting ’em, and frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
Later that day he reiterated, “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country … they are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country.”
Last year, Trump again explained that Saudi Arabia is a valuable ally because it buys so many American weapons: “They spent $400 billion in our country over the last number of years. Four hundred billion dollars. That’s a million and a half jobs.”
Trump is not the only president to sell arms to some shady client regimes. But he is surely the only president who has made the enrichment of military contractors the explicit public objective of a bilateral relationship. Fattening the military-industrial complex is not the by-product of Trump’s foreign policy but its stated objective.
Of course it’s common for Trump to privately mock his political allies as morons even as he does business with them. Michael Cohen writes that after religious leaders laid hands on Trump in 2012 he said, “Can you believe that bullshit?… Can you believe people believe that bullshit?” Leaked notes from a meeting with British leaders obtained by the Telegraph record that Trump called abortion a “tough issue,” and suggested, “Imagine some animal with tattoos raping your daughter and then she gets pregnant.”
Trump probably assumed that having bought off the military brass with lavish spending, he could count on them to stay discreet about his occasional sociopathic remark. It is very believable that he would be unable to imagine a motive for their unease with his leadership other than venality. But nobody else needs to cooperate with the preposterous ruse that Trump poses a threat to the income stream of American military leaders.