'L’état, c’est moi.' How Donald Trump viewed the military as an 'apparatus for personal use': legal expert
Almost 19 months have passed since Joe Biden was sworn in as president of the United States and Donald Trump moved from White House to Mar-a-Lago — and unlike the many ex-presidents who kept a low profile after leaving office, Trump continues to generate headline after headline. Many of the recent headlines have pertained to the FBI’s August 8 search of Mar-a-Lago, where agents, according to the Washington Post, confiscated boxes believed to contain classified government documents.
Another recent Trump-related controversy concerns a resignation letter that, in 2020, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote but never sent. Milley believed that Trump politicized the U.S. military for his own purposes and had major criticisms of him — criticisms that Theodore Johnson, director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, discusses in an article published by the conservative website The Bulwark on August 19.
“Last week,” Johnson explains, “two stunning things came to light regarding our military and the intelligence it produces. The first was Gen. Mark Milley’s written-but-never-sent resignation letter from 2020, accusing then-President Donald Trump of politicizing the armed services, being insufficiently patriotic, ruining the international order, and ‘doing great and irreparable harm to my country.’ The second was the FBI’s execution of a search warrant of Trump’s current residence to recover government property, including eleven sets of classified documents.”
Johnson continues, “These historic occurrences speak to just how deeply Trump believed the military not to be an instrument of national power, but an apparatus for personal use. Milley composed his resignation draft after being asked to participate in Trump’s ego-stroke theater — first by conducting a military show of force against Americans upset about George Floyd’s killing days earlier and then being unwittingly drafted into Trump’s infamous march across Lafayette Square after it was forcibly cleared of protesters.”
U.S. democracy, Johnson stresses, came “dangerously close to the precipice” when Trump was in the White House — and one of the things that made Trump so dangerous, according to Johnson, was his belief that the military served him personally rather than serving the United States on the whole.
“Regarding the classified material squirreled away in Mar-a-Lago,” Johnson writes, “the underlying explanation from Trump and his supporters appears to amount to little more than that it was his to do with as he pleased without any regard to the potential damage to our national security interests…. When a president believes his interests supersede the nation’s — or, worse, that his interests become the nation’s — the democratic principle of ‘civilian control of the military’ exposes the armed services to co-option as a partisan tool for domestic politics.”
Trump’s mentality as president, Johnson argues, was “l’état, c’est moi” — a phrase attributed to King Louis IV of France, who died in the year 954. France, for centuries, had a monarchy, which came to an abrupt and bloody end when the French Revolution got underway in 1789. In French, “l’état, c’est moi” means “the state, that is I” or “I am the state,” and it reflects a belief that a king or ruler should have absolute power.
Trump, according to Johnson, brought a “L’état, c’est moi” mentality to the White House, and his relationship with the U.S. military reflected that mentality.
“He and his acolytes acted as though the Constitution meant whatever he said it meant, and thus, the oath military members took to it was received as fealty to the president, the person, and not the presidency, the office,” Johnson says of Trump. “Extending this monarchic view, everything the military does is presumed to be ultimately in service of the man; everything it produces, even highly classified material, is the property of the man. When considered alongside the toxic partisanship and democratic backsliding plaguing the nation — where political opponents are often characterized as existential threats — the line between defense of the nation and partisan expedience is dangerously blurred…. As American scholars have long noted, the politicization of the military threatens the institution’s legitimacy.”
Johnson wraps up his article on an ominous note, warning that Trumpism still poses a danger to U.S. democracy in 2022.
“The threat to civilian control of the military posed by the l’état, c’est moi presidency couldn’t be clearer,” Johnson writes. “Civil-military relations mostly held during the Trump presidency, a testament to the resilience of the institution and to our democracy. But dangers remain. If our country’s toxic polarization, hyperpartisanship, and intentional stoking of social tensions for political ends are not sufficiently addressed, we may find ourselves dangerously close to the precipice once more — and if Trump or someone following the Trump model comes to power again, we may well tumble over the edge.”
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