“Can we all put nation before political party?” That was a question posed to me by a National Guard Special Forces officer who also works in the civilian side of the U.S. Executive Branch. He is very careful about posting anything remotely political on social media. A retired 3-star general raised concerns with me that retired generals and admirals (GOFOs) sounding off against the President really harm the trust between the President and his current senior military leaders: Some of those harmed might be commanders in combat zones. These were sobering concerns for me.
I have spent a few years talking to current and past U.S. government employees, military and civilian, to gauge their concerns about the damage from the 2016 elections and damage to come in 2020. The latest input I got from floating ideas about this on Twitter aren’t positive. I am pretty convinced we didn’t learn much from the 2016 election and political activity by USG members in it. I was close to some of the 2016 presidential campaign advisory folks and even took part in the non-partisan presidential transition team on the NSC portfolio. After working for free for over 60 days, I left D.C. on Inauguration Day morning at around 3 AM, mostly due to the partisan behavior, from both political parties, that I didn’t want to be around.
Gearing Up for Another Partisan Political Season
The 2020 U.S. presidential campaign season is about to go into top gear and now might be a good time to review some of the lessons and disasters from the 2016 election. While most inside and outside the U.S. government stayed in their lane last cycle, there were some drivers who got into a fender bender or two; unfortunately, a handful in both political parties rolled their car and ended up in a ditch.
Yet as I look at current activities by too many today, even after America surveyed the wreckage from the election, many lessons go unheeded. Recently retired military, justice, diplomatic and intelligence senior leaders continue to tow their car out of the ditch repeatedly, and drive it right back in. If you held a high rank in your executive branch organization and then leave the government and start badmouthing the president on his behavior and policy, you are eroding the trust between every sitting president and his current executive branch teammates – no matter your intention. Well-meaning trust erosion is still unhelpful.
We want our president to trust the entire workforce of the executive branch as much as he trusts his approximately 2,000-3,000 political appointees. Every time someone from an agency or department, in or out of government, makes statements that can be misperceived as being against the president or his policy, the president will make a mental note. You are naïve to think a president doesn’t take personal or repetitive attacks against himself or his policy to heart. The more the president is attacked by serving or retired Executive Branch personnel, the less he trusts that part of his government. The result for the American people is a poorly functioning executive branch and a consolidation of power in the White House. That means foreign policy and national security mistakes increase. If you are okay with that, you can stop reading.
Wherever you work in the U.S. government, there is an organizational regulation that covers how you should act while on the clock or off-duty – start there first. This is my brief list of collected lessons that you can follow if you would like to easily avoid a costly mistake. If you have recently retired from the U.S. Government in a senior position, or have recently moved up the ranks inside the government to the senior levels, this goes double for you.
If you are in government right now (a paid employee):
Step one, don’t talk about politics at work (or publicly on social media or IRL with work-mates). As tempting as this is, it does you no favors and can make a hostile workplace appear overnight. This is especially awkward if you have political appointees in your office space. It might be allowed in your organization, but for the sake of those around you, at least, just skip it. It’s unnecessary and likely not in your job description.
Step two, try not to talk politics to those below your pay-grade. Even after you leave work you might be tempted to talk about the current candidates and your views on them. If you are talking politics with your teammates and some of them have to report to you as a supervisor, stop. It again puts your work-mates in a tough spot. You may be able to safely talk about the election with your peers, but it is unnecessary and will cause more trouble than it’s worth.
Step three, talk policy in a constructive and respectful way in public. Yes, anything you write in a text, email, or on the internet is in the public domain, whether you think it’s private or not. A good rule of thumb today is that whatever you send digitally will one day be released on the internet. So, when you talk about the policies of various candidates, be sure it is in language you want your mom and kids to read one day.
For the military:
A key consideration might be, is there a civ-mil issue with this particular President or are military officers, intelligence leaders, and diplomats just getting more vocally partisan? I am not sure, but military officers becoming more partisan isn’t healthy for our nation.
Step one, do everything for civilians above. It should be the baseline for you. But you also hold a special place in America as part of the most respected institution, so there is another level of focus on you. Plus, what you do or say can have some major impacts on the relations between the civilians elected to run the nation, and the military that is supposed to be of service to them. Never forget the civilian government is in charge of your mission.
As one lieutenant general explained it to me, “when senior active duty flag officers offer advice on policy, they must do it from a position of trust. The better the trust relationship, the more likely that their voice will receive due consideration.” He also reminded me of a concept that should be realized by every military officer, “That doesn’t mean automatic 100% acceptance of ‘best military advice.’ The President weighs all the advice he is receiving and makes decisions based on a holistic view of the national interest as he sees it. It’s his call; he was elected by the people.” That applies to all civilians in government pretty well, too.
Step two, don’t talk about your Commander in Chief (CINC). Even though the incumbent is technically a presidential candidate too, until inauguration day they are also the Commander in Chief. So, follow the service rules on dissenting with the CINC policy and publicly speaking about the president. As for the other candidates running for the CINC role, talk about them in good taste, if you feel the need to be public in your opinions. They may be the next president and what you put on the internet never goes away. Don’t make things hard for you, your service, or for those elected officials.
Step three, don’t talk about your Commander in Chief’s policy positions and decisions in “good or bad” terms. Your job in uniform is not to critique the decisions once made. Your job is to provide advice to civilians when asked, and then execute all lawful missions. So, just carry out the orders given, or resign and run for office to challenge the president legally.
If your advice wasn’t taken, one general suggested to me “The question the military (and others involved) should be asking themselves is did we do everything we could to mitigate the anticipated (and now realized) negative effects of that policy choice? Or did we act as if our advice would be accepted, despite numerous indications otherwise?” Again, pretty good advice for senior civilian leaders too.
Step four, ensure your folks are registered to vote and know how to do it. Don’t become a civil war era officer and start telling them who to vote for. Your job is to ensure your teammates understand how to take part in our democracy experiment, not tell them who should be in charge of the republic.
If you have left government service (Retired federal employees):
This advice is for both civilian and military retirees.
Generals, admirals, colonels, and Navy captains, and their civilian equivalents all hold a special place in the government and the public square; they must watch their words closely. Don’t forget that when you speak out, and junior members of your organization see it, they will feel empowered to do the same.
All the rules above still hold true for you, if you would like the nation to avoid some of the 2016 campaign disasters. If you do choose to get partisan or politically involved, then stop using your rank in your title and don’t wear your uniform or official photo. Just be yourself and see if you still hold any sway, or if you are seen as a clown. You can jump in the action for sure; but do it the best way possible for those in your institution that have to live with the mess you might make. If you destroy the trust between the president and an entire organization you profess to love, you have to live with that.
The biggest lesson our nation should have learned last campaign cycle and from actions happening up until today, is that retired senior leaders from the intelligence, military, justice, or diplomatic community can really make things difficult for the ones still on the job. So, if you want to get paid by the media to opine, try to do so in a respectful way so that the person that replaced you can still build a solid relationship with the president. The trust they need to build is critical for our national security, don’t make them have to work harder for it than you did.
If you want to write books, tweet, or make speeches, then try not to ruin your reputation, and that of your parent institution by being a political party partisan hack that has lost all objectivity. If the press thinks you are sub-tweeting the president every day, then own up to it. Don’t try to be covert or slick in your dislike for the commander in chief. At least take off your uniform if you are going to be a partisan, hopefully you have some photographs of yourself in civilian clothes now that you are retired.
For the lieutenant colonels and below and their civilian equivalents, you are a dime a dozen, so some of the pressure is off. But what you say can still have an effect on the nation, as those in government service below the senior ranks are still seen as important leaders and thoughtful citizens.
So, say what you like, but don’t dishonor the services by being a bigot or attacking people without evidence or cause. You can be a jerk – it’s a free country – but don’t expect any respect from those you slander or anger.
Putting the Civility Back in Civil Service
Yes, you are allowed to do much more than this as an active or retired U.S. government member. I am simply offering some thoughts from the position I had near the Trump campaign and inside the Trump-Obama Presidential Transition Team. What people who serve in the government (active or retired) say matters to those elected. If any of us make it harder for the next administration to trust the employees in the executive branch of government, that is the equivalent of getting in a car knowing you are drunk. The life you ruin may very well not be your own.
I sadly predict that the 2020 election will look a lot like the 2016 election. Candidates will trot out “their generals and admirals” and use their surrogates from the State Department world and the intel community to go on TV and declare the brilliance of one candidate and the existential danger of the other. All of this activity eats away at the trust between sitting presidents and their executive branch workforce. Every misperception that somehow members of the executive branch are disloyal to the president eats away at the trust.
All of us share in the responsibility to keep the nation united and functioning as well as possible. Don’t let your urges to give your opinion ruin your reputation, or worse yet tarnish your institute. Take a look at whatever oath you took to enter your career field and think about how your grandchildren would expect you to act in accordance to it.
The trust that exists between the president’s inner team and the rest of the professional workforce in the executive branch has taken decades of trust-building to create. It can be destroyed in seconds by unprofessional, irresponsible, or just unnecessary behavior by either side of the equation. All of this behavior sets a precedent for the next president. What precedent do you want to set for military, diplomatic, and intelligence leaders that follow you? I didn’t write this because I get this correct and others don’t. I wrote it because almost all of us say things that we shouldn’t, and we can all do better.