In a moment marking the failure of officials to control Donald Trump’s behavior and cover for his lack of knowledge, Trump blasted his top US generals “a bunch of dopes and babies”.
The episode came in July 2017 in a meeting which spurred Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to assess that Trump was a “fucking moron” and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to conclude that Trump was an “idiot” with the intelligence of a “kindergartner”.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, Tillerson, and the White House’s top economic advisor Gary Cohn were worried that Trump was impulsive and lacked basic knowledge. So Mattis invited Trump to a briefing in the Pentagon’s secure vault, “The Tank”. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and White House chief strategist were also in attendance.
Using maps, graphics, and charts — with lots of dollar signs — to keep Trump from getting bored, Mattis gave a 20-minute presentation on the need for US military deployments, the NATO alliance, and international order. Tillerson and Cohn followed with explanations of American diplomacy and the need for free trade.
“You’re All Losers”
A restless Trump frequetly interrupted. He said it was “crazy” and “stupid” to pay for bases in some countries. He insisted that South Korea should pay for a missile defense system, protecting it from North Korea, or US troops would be pulled out of the region.
We should charge them rent. We should make them pay for our soldiers. We should make money off of everything.
He berated NATO — “They are in arrears” — then turned against his advisors, “We are owed money you haven’t been collecting! You would totally go bankrupt if you had to run your own business.”
Mattis and Cohn tried to explain that NATO did not “owe” the US money and helped protect America, but Bannon enabled Trump’s tantrum.
All you guys talk about all these great things, they’re all our partners, I want you to name me now one country and one company that’s going to have his back.
And Trump was careening towards the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — “It’s the worst deal in history!” — the “loser war” in Afghanistan, and oil for payment for US troops in the Middle East: “We spent $7 trillion; they’re ripping us off. Where is the fucking oil?”
He snapped, “You’re all losers. You don’t know how to win anymore.”
“Dopes and Babies”
Now enraged, Trump cut off commanders who tried to explain the military situations in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
“I want to win,” he shouted, “We don’t win any wars anymore….We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.”
Then Trump — who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War by claiming bone spurs in his feet — demeaned the leaders of the US military, “I wouldn’t go to war with you people. You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
Mattis stared down at the table. Pence sat “frozen like a statue…a deer in the headlights”.
Tillerson, who had been waiting for the commanders to push back Trump, finally interjected. The son and nephew of combat veterans, he said:
Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.
The men and women who put on a uniform don’t do it to become soldiers of fortune. That’s not why they put on a uniform and go out and die….They do it to protect our freedom.
Trump walked out. Tillerson commented to the room, “He’s a fucking moron.”
No Checks and Balances
But despite their anger, discontent, and concern, the advisors tried to protect Trump. Dunford said two days later at the Aspen Security Forum, “He asked a lot of hard questions, and the one thing he does is question some fundamental assumptions that we make as military leaders — and he will come in and question those. It’s a pretty energetic and an interactive dialogue.”
Tillerson’s “moron” statement did not leak until October 2017. When it did, it marked his card for departure: Trump finally fired him in March 2018.
There was another meeting in December 2017 in the White House Situation Room. Again, the advisors tried to guide Trump on Afghanistan. Again Trump was fixated on a business transaction: “All these countries need to start paying us for the troops we are sending to their countries. We need to be making a profit. We could turn a profit on this.”
Dunford tried to explain about the stability from the deployment of US troops. Another officer noted that charging other countries for the stationing of US soldiers is against the law.
“But it just wasn’t working,” a former Trump aide recalled. “Nothing worked.”
Trump dismissed McMaster in March 2018. Mattis finally gave up the struggle in December 2018, after Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw US troops from Syria.
Trump, freed from the “dopes” and “babies” trying to keep US foreign and military policy on a stable course, was now unchecked.