One of the downsides of writing frequently for a long time is that sometimes you get things catastrophically wrong. Such was the case when I wrote in mid-2016 that Mitch McConnell’s blocking of a hearing on Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court would backfire on him and Republicans in the 2016 election. I mistakenly believed that the Senate majority leader’s cynical and naked power grab would turn most Americans off and sufficiently demonstrate that the balance of the court was at stake in the 2016 election, resulting in a Hillary Clinton victory.
That’s not how it went down, though. In fact, holding open that seat worked out exactly how Republican leaders hoped, and now we’re left with a rogue Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade and has ceased to care how political or corrupt it appears in the process. This egregious miscalculation on my part is why I take such a dim view of what is happening with Senator Tommy Tuberville and his blocking of hundreds of military nominees for senior flag-officer positions.
This is a naked power play, whose end goal, I suspect, is to fill every senior military position simultaneously with Trump loyalists and sycophants if Trump wins reelection in 2024.
Traditionally, the Senate has voted for entire blocks of generals and admirals nominated for assignments in short, bipartisan voice votes with unanimous consent to do so. Tuberville has broken tradition and is using Senate parliamentarian rules to insist on a full confirmation vote on every single nominee. There is already a backlog of over 300 unfilled positions, which will rise to over 650 by the end of the year: There is literally not enough time in a year for the Senate to do this.
The reason Tuberville is making this power play is over the Defense Department’s policy of allowing service members in states that block access to abortion to get time off and travel to states where abortion is legal, with their expenses paid by the military. Tuberville claims this violates the Hyde Amendment. However, this ignores the damage he is doing up and down the ranks of the military.
At the lower levels, the military policy is necessary given the grim realities of where the DOD is now. It has a significant problem with sexual assault that appears to be getting worse. It also has major problems with recruiting, and 30 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds specifically cite fear of sexual assault as the reason why they are uninterested in military service. Almost one in five members of the military are female, so abandoning efforts to recruit women would likely exacerbate existing manpower shortfalls.
Giving in to Tuberville’s demands would create significant problems for the military. What happens when a service member is raped, becomes pregnant, and is denied leave by her commanding officer to terminate the pregnancy? Or is so junior that she cannot afford to seek care elsewhere? What happens when these stories start reaching the media? Similarly, what happens when there are complications from a wanted pregnancy that needs to be terminated (e.g., ectopic, molar, or otherwise nonviable pregnancies) after six weeks? Again, what we see in red states is women needing to be at death’s door, bleeding out in their car in the hospital parking lot, before doctors are allowed by hospital lawyers to act. It will happen, and when it does, it will be a nightmare for the DOD in terms of recruiting and public perception of the institution.
It also could cause major issues with retention, which has been the one way that the Pentagon has been staving off the worst of the effects of its recruiting woes. After some high-profile cases, what female service member is going to willingly accept orders to a state where being raped has the potential to be a death sentence? Or where she faces the possibility of choosing between a court martial for going AWOL to seek medical care or being forced to carry her rapist’s child? Another common scenario in the military is people having a choice between staying in and taking new orders or simply getting out. It seems likely that were Tuberville to prevail, we would see women presented with the choice of accepting orders to Fort Bliss or leaving the service increasingly choose the latter.
As retired Navy Captain and Arizona Democratic Senator Mark Kelly notes, this situation has an impact on the lives of the flag officers (and those nominated for promotion to admiral or general), as well as our military alliances. People can’t retire, are separated from their families, their kids’ lives are further disrupted, and allies are insulted when we send a colonel instead of a brigadier general. But the implications go beyond just the human aspect.
Acting heads of organizations are legally limited in how much they can do to steer the course of these agencies. They are more caretakers than people who can set a course and implement a vision. With the war in Ukraine raging, tensions in the Pacific high, and a revolution in artificial intelligence and drone warfare taking place, our national defense system needs people in place who have the authority to implement the changes necessary to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving threat environment.
This is why the service secretaries are speaking out against Tuberville. Even military leadership like Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley (the chiefs are generally loath to wade into highly visible political fights with individual senators) has been highly critical of Tuberville’s actions. Soon, most of the seats on the JCS will be vacant, and setting a long-term heading for the DOD will be nearly impossible since everyone will be in an acting capacity.
But rape, women hemorrhaging in parking lots, massive manpower shortfalls, and complete loss of ability to steer the long-term vision for our forces aren’t the worst part of this. The nightmare scenario is that none of these posts get filled and Trump gets to fill all of them with hand-picked nominees who are selected specifically for their inability to ever say “no.” Trump hated military leadership, whom he insultingly regarded as “pussies”
Military leaders generally saw their role as preventing Trump from doing catastrophically stupid, illegal, or unethical things. According to Trump’s former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Trump wanted the National Guard to shoot the protesters outside the White House in 2020. It’s also become part of the mainstream GOP platform to advocate bombing or invading Mexico. Esper later admitted he only stayed on as defense secretary because he was worried Trump would replace him with an “uber loyalist.”
Trump, for his part, learned that if he wants to get his way, he needs everyone in positions of authority to be loyal to him first and everything else second. He hates being told “no” and takes a cavalier attitude toward the legality of his actions, believing in a unitary executive office immune from prosecution. Trump has not hidden that his second term is going to be a revenge tour to tear down the government. Given the chance, he will fill the entirety of U.S. military flag positions with yes-men. If nearly all of the positions are vacant, he doesn’t have to fire or replace anyone: He can simply submit a different slate of nominees, all of whom have been prescreened for ideological and personal loyalty.
And therein lies the path to madness: There will be no one left to say no to any of the worst impulses of Trump and his ultra-right, pro-Russian base. It’s not just forcing trans people out of the military and revoking the ability to travel for abortions; it’s forcing most women out of the service as well. It’s bombing Mexico and sending in special forces. It’s abandoning Ukraine, withdrawing from NATO, and sharing intelligence with Russia. And ultimately, if there are protests, it’s going to be Trump asking for a massacre of protesters from a room full of people who can’t wait to say yes.
Senator Tuberville’s actions are obviously harmful in the here and now. But I struggle to see Senate Republicans changing the rules to strip him of his power to block these nominations, because the presumed Republican nominee wants to be the one to fill them. This is an opportunity for power beyond imagining: the instantaneous, complete, and utter ideological co-option of military leadership by a single political party whose vision for America is theocratic, autocratic, and based on permanent minoritarian rule.
Trump would like nothing better than a room full of generals who only know how to say “yes.” And it’s been a long time since we’ve seen Republicans say no to the concept of power at any price.