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Analysis: Pentagon has a credibility problem, and it's only getting worse

Andrew Clevenger, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in Political News

The Soleimani strike is not the only time Esper has embraced the president's questionable security policies and directions. Schake includes in this category going along with the national emergency declaration on the southern border and the repurposing of military construction funds for a border wall.

This policy was in place before Esper took office, but he just reaffirmed he agrees that it is a national security issue worthy of funds appropriated for military construction projects.

This position could end up costing the Defense Department -- which always seems to be asking for more money -- billions of dollars when Congress refuses to backfill these accounts.

In the run-up to the House's impeachment inquiry, Esper said publicly the Pentagon would comply with a congressional subpoena. But when the White House clamped down on that, he reversed course. Several Defense Department officials did testify of their own volition, but the department has not cooperated with the investigation.

Last month, Esper pushed back against a Wall Street Journal report that the Pentagon was considering sending thousands of more troops to the Middle East, a move that would seem to run afoul of the president's promises to end endless wars there. Speaking at the Reagan Defense Forum, Esper agreed when asked if the report was "fake news." Yet in the wake of Iran tensions thousands more troops have been sent to the Middle East.

This runs counter to my impressions of Esper when I interviewed him one-on-one during his tenure as Army secretary. Then, Esper was responsive, thoughtful and demonstrated an appreciation of the media's role in promoting a better understanding of the military's inner workings among the public and members of Congress.

 

What's different, said David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel who served as a Pentagon spokesman for multiple administrations, is that Esper is now in a role that attracts close scrutiny from the president.

"It's a combination of managing up and reflecting, at the end of the day, he is a political appointee who works for President Trump," Lapan said. "The military needs to remain apolitical, to be seen by the public as apolitical, and it needs to have credibility. In the Trump era, that's increasingly difficult to do."

Lapan lamented the decrease in the frequency and regularity of the Pentagon's engagements with the media, something he traces back to the tenure of Jim Mattis, Trump's first defense secretary. With the media (and by extension, the public), trust and credibility are built over time, one forthright conversation after another, he says.

"A time of crisis is really when you need to have clear, unambiguous communication, not contradictory, confusing communications that cause people to question credibility, to question the information you're providing," says Lapan.

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