Fire the Commandant (if He Leaked the Memos)

There are even higher obligations than taking care of Marines.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller salutes during the National Anthem before a baseball game at Nationals Park, Washington, D.C., July 20, 2016. Photo By: Cpl. Samantha Draughon.

Newsweek is reporting the Commandant of the Marine Corps recently leaked internal DOD memos (actual memos embedded in the Newsweek report) outlining the risk of continued deployment of Marines to the SW border and reprogramming money appropriated for military housing construction. As one friend has pointed out to me in separate correspondence, this is thinly sourced — only Newsweek is reporting CMC (or perhaps more accurately, Headquarters, US Marine Corps) was the source of the leak so far, and no other major outlet has validated it. So the rest of this post is predicated on the future substantiation to some greater degree of certainty the CMC, or his staff, with his tacit or explicit permission, leaked the memos.

If he leaked these memos, he should be fired. Full stop. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

The Commandant is a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, equal in authority and status to the other three services within DOD. (Don’t get me started on that ridiculous “part of the Navy” trope — the Corps and the Navy are separate and co-equal services which share a service secretary and are interreliant for several other areas of competence, including TACAIR, medical and dental, some legal support functions, security forces for certain naval installations, etc.) The Commandant’s chain of command flows through the SECDEF directly to the President. He is the President’s principal advisor on matters pertaining to the Marine Corps. He owes the President his undivided and unmitigated loyalty, no matter who is in office. And if General Neller released those memos, he betrayed that loyalty. The penalty must be immediate sacking.

The President is entitled to expect the loyalty of his generals, particularly his service chiefs. This is a cornerstone of civil military relations, stated perhaps most succinctly in Samuel Huntington’s seminal treatise on the uncomfortable relationship between a democratic republic and its most powerful institution: the armed forces. Huntington’s The Soldier and the State describes a theory of “objective civilian control” whereby the threat posed to government by the military is mitigated by the professionalization of the armed forces — essentially, a military which understands its constitutional obligations is less likely to contravene them. Neller’s leaking the memos — a time honored Washington technique of influencing public debate — runs counter to these principles, by undermining the President’s — particularly THIS President’s — confidence in the trustworthiness of the Commandant’s advice. General Neller had plenty of avenues to make his priorities known, and the memos, if kept internal, represent one correct technique in executing the service chief’s responsibility to the SECDEF, the SECNAV, and the President — to provide risk assessments and best military advice. What’s not included in the job description of a service chief is to decide the best outcome and to engage in scorched earth, by any means necessary subterfuge to ensure that outcome prevails. Leaking memos in other agencies in commonplace, but the armed forces have to be better than that.

Don’t get me wrong: helping Marine families is super important. I get it. I was a Marine 22 years and I care about Marines and their families as much as anyone. But it cannot be our HIGHEST priority. In fact, if it were truly our highest priority, the Department of the Navy would never have entered these deals with private property managers (PPV‘s) with so little oversight and performance controls. Protecting the sanctity of the relationship between our general officers and the President is also pretty important. Decisions about military and national security strategy, war and peace, and the lives of those same Marines depend on the trust a President is entitled to expect between a CINC and his generals. A service chief simply doesn’t get to substitute his judgment for that of the President and engage in subterfuge to pressure his President. If a colonel did that to his Commanding General, he’d quickly be shown the door, because the trust between a regimental or brigade commander and his commanding general is important. And the trust between a service chief and the President is 100 times more important.

General Neller stepped over the line. I’m looking forward to General Thomas being appointed Acting Commandant until LtGen Dave Berger can be confirmed.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Law and the Courts, Military Affairs
Butch Bracknell
About Butch Bracknell
Butch Bracknell is an international security lawyer. A career Marine, he is a father, Truman National Security Project member, and Sorensen Political Leaders Program fellow. All posts are his personal views only, not representing any organization. Follow him on Twitter at @ButchBracknell.

Comments

  1. Bob@Youngstown says:

    I’ve no dog in this issue.
    However, the last sentence of your post is seems to be in conflict with the headline.
    It sounds like you are advocating removal of Neller, regardless.

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  2. @Bob@Youngstown: 1st para: “So the rest of this post is predicated on the future substantiation to some greater degree of certainty the CMC, or his staff, with his tacit or explicit permission, leaked the memos.”

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  3. dennis says:

    @ButchBracknell:

    . . . essentially, a military which understands its constitutional obligations is less likely to contravene them. Neller’s leaking the memos . . . runs counter to these principles, by undermining the President’s — particularly THIS President’s — confidence in the trustworthiness of the Commandant’s advice

    I’m in total agreement with your argument. “Good order and discipline” must be maintained down and up the chain of command. The glaring question is this: What would cause a career military professional such as CMC Neller to blatantly violate his oath and professional standards and cross that boundary? Or, more specifically, what is it about THIS president that spurred him to do so, if he did? The possibilities should give us pause.

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  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    I’ve no dog in this fight, either. Your position seems reasonable.

    And, the current occupant of the White House is the sort of guy who says one thing to your face and another to the press. He pretends to be a hard-ass in public and then caves in private. I doubt he’ll fire anyone, this sort of thing, sniping and leaking to the press by underlings, is business as usual for him. He’s going to infect the higher echelons of the government with it, as I’m sure you know. We may recover from him swiftly, or we may not. I find it hard to predict.

    Also, welcome aboard.

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  5. Mark Ivey says:

    “He owes the President his undivided and unmitigated loyalty”

    But with Trump?? f**k that….

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    As noted, Headquarters, US Marine Corps would presumably contain more potential leakers than just the Commandant. Seems premature to be making conclusions.

    Along with Dennis I agree the military must adhere to the lawful chain of command. And I hope to hell they remember that on the flip side if they receive an unlawful order. Out of curiosity, is there any guidance on orders from a superior of questionable mental state?

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Mark Ivey:

    “He owes the President his undivided and unmitigated loyalty”

    But with Trump?? f**k that….

    So here’s the problem: Waaaay too many members of the officer corps thought that with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump was duly elected by the process we have in place, imperfect as it may be, and he therefore gets to Commander-in-Chief until noon on 20 January 2021 unless he dies or is removed from office via impeachment or the process set forth under the 25th Amendment.

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  8. @gVOR08: In my view, he’s responsible for whatever happens at HQMC. He’s literally responsible for HQMC, by law. If a Colonel leaked this, with or without his knowledge, both of them should be fired.

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    The President is entitled to expect the loyalty of his generals, particularly his service chiefs.

    No, he’s entitled to their obedience to orders. The military is not loyal to the POTUS, the military is loyal to the United States and its constitution.

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  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    One thing that should be noted here: the currently existing Newsweek website has nothing to do with the former weekly magazine of the same name. The rights to the branding got bought by IBT Media, which is essentially a mouthpiece for evangelical pastor David J. Jang. People tend to give it more credibility than it deserves based on its history when it’s little different from sites like WND.com now.

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  11. Mark Ivey says:

    James Joyner: “Waaaay too many members of the officer corps thought that with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.” And now most of those ignorant’s are Trump supporters.

    If one of them has a moment of reality over Trump and pulls a Deep Throat for redemption? So be it.

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Oh, I think I had missed that. I knew that the magazine went out of business years ago and the branding got bought out by the Daily Beast. I didn’t know they’ve been sold again.

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I read IBT news items occasionally and have seen nothing that would indicate anything other than a relatively straight forward news operation. Additionally (from Wikipedia):

    In the early days of the International Business Times, IBT Media employed immigrant students of Olivet University to translate English into Chinese and other languages, working illegally and being paid less than minimum wage. The connection of “the Community,” a Christian sect led by a “charismatic Korean pastor named David Jang”[26] with IBT is disputed.[27]

    As always, YMMV.

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  14. Mark Ivey says:

    “President Trump instructed his acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to fire United States Secret Service director Randolph “Tex” Alles today.”
    https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/08/politics/randolph-tex-alles-secret-service-director/index.html

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    Expanding a bit. For purposes of edification, the US military officer’s oath:

    I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

    You will note the words “United States” and “Constitution.” There is no mention of loyalty to the president. Soldiers do not work for POTUS, they work for us. They are not paid by POTUS, they’re paid by us. The same is true of everyone in government at all levels. Zero people in the US government owe loyalty to the president, 100% owe loyalty to the Constitution and to us, the American people. This is not Venezuela or Azerbaijan.

    I grew up in an Army family, my dad did 20 years. That was a long time ago, and I would hate to think the Chiefs or any other member of the US military misunderstands who they work for and to what they owe loyalty. The instant the military starts to think it is loyal to this or any other president, it will be time to disband the military.

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  16. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yes, it’s interesting that the Officer’s Oath (which is the same that most civilian employees of the Government take) is to the Constitution and not the President. The same isn’t true of enlisted members:

    I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).

    That said, the UCMJ makes it a crime for officers to utter contemptuous words against the President and several other civilian officials.

    I’m with Butch here in believing generals have a solemn duty to obey all legal orders of the President and owe loyalty to the office of Commander-in-Chief. So, as much as I respect Stan McChrystal and thought President Obama was wrong on Afghanistan, I thought McChrystal should have been fired when he/his team leaked their Afghanistan plan with the obvious goal of undermining the President’s attempt to slow roll it and substitute a less ambitious plan.

    While it wasn’t that way in the first century or so of the Republic, it has long been axiomatic that generals give their best military advice and then Secretaries and Presidents make decisions. The general then either salutes and carries out the orders smartly or resigns over principle.

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  17. Kim says:

    @Mark Ivey:
    Loyalty? To the President? No, sir. To the Constitution. He’s required to follow orders, and after Nuremberg and May Lai, if he believes those orders to be anti Constitutional, he should be informing the public. That’s how our representative republic works. They all work for us. The great teeming mass of taxpayers.

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  18. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    The Death of Newsweek

    After years of survivable financial struggles, the magazine—founded in 1933—cratered with the economy in 2008, was sold by the Washington Post Co. for $1 in 2010, and sold again in 2013 by Barry Diller’s IAC to a shadowy company called International Business Times. In the last five years, Newsweek produced some strong journalism and plenty of clickbait before becoming a painful embarrassment to anyone who toiled there in its golden age. Matt Cooper, who also worked at the old Newsweek, resigned from the latest incarnation Monday with a letter saying that in three decades in journalism, “I’ve never seen more reckless leadership.” Ed Kosner, editor in the late 1970s, wrote on Facebook Tuesday, “Time to begin always making the distinction between our Real Newsweek of sainted memory and this shameful Fake Newsweek.”

    (Note this is written by former Newsweek journalist Jonathan Alter).

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  19. Russ says:

    @James Joyner: you quoted the oath of enlistment for enlisted servicemembers. Officers take an oath of office: I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @Russ:

    you quoted the oath of enlistment for enlisted servicemembers. Officers take an oath of office:

    Yes, I’m well aware. I’ve taken them both. I was reinforcing @Michael Reynolds‘s point that officers take an oath to the Constitution, not the President.

    @Kim:

    He’s required to follow orders, and after Nuremberg and May Lai, if he believes those orders to be anti Constitutional, he should be informing the public.

    Neither Nuremberg nor Mai Lai changed anything with regard to an officer’s duty. If he believes an order illegal or unconstitutional, there are legitimate means of refusing them. Leaking to the press is not among them. Further, while I agree that the diversion of DoD building funds to build a stupid border wall is bad policy—and happen to think it’s outside the scope of POTUS’ power—it’s not an “illegal order” under military law.

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  21. DrDaveT says:

    I’m having trouble figuring out from the linked story just what restrictions would have been in place against Neller copying anyone he chose to on these letters, or indeed what justifies the verb ‘leak’, as opposed to (say) ‘share’. These were letters that he himself wrote, yes? What was their official status, such that their author (and the senior distribution authority in the Corps) could not choose at his discretion to make them public? Or at least to send them to both sides of the aisle?

    This isn’t a defense; I’m just looking for enough facts to understand the charge.

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  22. Jack BoHannon says:

    If it’s true start packing your Chit General,if a Pvt ran his Suck he’d be under the Brig at Quantico !!!

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  23. Karl says:

    The oath of office we take is pretty clear. The president is entitled to have his lawful orders obeyed whether they are good or not. He is not “entitled” to his officers’ loyalty, though he likely expects it. There are plenty of commanders that have had their orders obeyed that haven’t earned their subordinates loyalty, and this may be no different. Good commanders earn that loyalty, bad commanders don’t. Loyalty is not a right.

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  24. PeteThornton says:

    First question, from a retired SgtMaj has to be, do we know this is in fact what has gone down or was this posted on the wall of the third stall on the left. I have a real hard time thinking that my Commandant and your Commandant would violate his pledge of loyality over something like this. No disrespect intended to you as a Marine officer but sounds to me like this story is right out of the 3rd stall on the left in the barracks head.

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  25. Paul Croisetiere says:

    “General Neller stepped over the line.” Where is the evidence Butch? I’m shocked that a former military attorney would make such a leap. I thought we were all innocent until proven guilty? What should happen next is an investigation to determine what the facts are. And the Commandant or another leader can then take corrective action.

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  26. Stephen A Watson says:
  27. Leroy Brown says:

    As a former Marine Gunnery Sergeant, I truly believe the CMC did not divulge any info. He is concerned about the Marines at Camp Lejeune as we All should be Butch.

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  28. @Karl: I’m using loyalty and obedience interchangeably in this context.

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  29. @PeteThornton: 1st para: “So the rest of this post is predicated on the future substantiation to some greater degree of certainty the CMC, or his staff, with his tacit or explicit permission, leaked the memos.”

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  30. @Paul Croisetiere: 1st para: “So the rest of this post is predicated on the future substantiation to some greater degree of certainty the CMC, or his staff, with his tacit or explicit permission, leaked the memos.”

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  31. @DrDaveT: They were addressed to the SECDEF and SECNAV. These types of memos are generally understood to be private and deliberative. If they were intended to be disclosed, they’d have been accompanied by a press release. There’s no reasonable argument these memos weren’t intended for public consumption, even though they didn’t meet the criteria for classification.

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  32. Here’s what we know: a media outlet has sources inside the Pentagon saying he leaked the memos or allowed them to be leaked. What evidence do we have he didn’t leak the memos? This isn’t a criminal proceeding, so there’s no “presumption of innocence.” I’m concerned about the Marines at Camp Lejeune, too, but not so much that it warrants extraconstitutional disclosures.

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  33. Kari Q says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    “He owes the President his undivided and unmitigated loyalty”

    But with Trump?? f**k that….

    The point is military subordination to civilian authority. It’s one of the most important principles we have, and we do not, under any circumstance, want to change that. If the military starts deciding whether they will obey orders based one whether they like and respect individual presidents, we are entering dangerous territory.

    Illegal order must be disobeyed. Otherwise, the military needs to obey the president, no matter what they think of him.

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  34. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Butch Bracknell:
    IF General Neller stepped over the line….

    Fixed your conclusion for you.
    Your welcome

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  35. DrDaveT says:

    @Butch Bracknell:

    They were addressed to the SECDEF and SECNAV. These types of memos are generally understood to be private and deliberative. If they were intended to be disclosed, they’d have been accompanied by a press release.

    The FOIA exemption for deliberative process is optional; it can always be waived, at the discretion of the agency whose records they are. The Commandant has the authority to make that decision unilaterally.

    Again, I’m having trouble parsing the source materials to figure out exactly what Neller allegedly did. To whom is he said to have leaked the letters? The press? Democratic Congressmen? Someone else?

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  36. Pat D. says:

    So he is taking what … a couple billion out of $880 Billion. That’s going to stop the military from operating? What about the whole time there weren’t appropriations under Nobama? What if the amount was $5B less when approved… would they have made that work? So much money gets wasted in the military each year (I remember having to order things we didn’t need at the end of the year to use up money) to keep their appropriations going up that I am sure this won’t be missed.

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  37. DAVID/G says:

    @Mark Ivey: AGREE….TRUMP IS A NUT JOB!…THE GENERALS SHOULD TAKE OVER!…

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  38. James Joyner says:

    @Pat D.: I gather that the issue is that Trump has ordered the money to come from the military construction budget and the recent hurricanes require a massive reinvestment in rebuilding places like Camp Lejeune.

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  39. de stijl says:

    @Mark Ivey:

    But with Trump?? f**k that….

    By tradition and oath, all military men and women are beholden to civilian command. You cannot pick and choose orders based on who ordered them.

    That way lies madness and juntas and military coups.

    I hate Trump too, but he is the duly elected President and Commander in chief of our armed forces, and, if legal, they must obey his orders. Unless you want chaos and uncertainty and mad pandering to and placating of powerful military leaders by every President hereafter, your assertion is daft and mad.

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  40. de stijl says:

    @Kari Q:

    Or what Kari Q said (apologies; I commented before I saw your reply.)

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  41. Myron Carr says:

    Gentlemen, as a Civilian Senior Executive Service (SES) Director, Homeland Security; You military employees’ as officer’s and enlisted members, including retired members have no right to personal opinions, intuitions, “little hairs back -of -your- neck”, that entitle you to allow for contempment or hatred against a president or members of Congress. Just because you may have a strong opinion for or against a duly elected president or congressional member does not permit you to engage in insubordination or actions to undermine civilian authority.
    Article 88 of the UCMJ, 10 U.S.C. 888, makes it a crime for a commissioned military officer to use contemptuous words against the President and Congress, among others. The Department of Defense has also expanded this rule to include all military enlisted personnel (DOD Directive 1344.10).
    If the President acts unlawful, it is congress that is empowered to deal with such acts through oversight and proper avenues of removal if such action is warranted.
    Just follow your lawful orders, command as best your judgement and line of authority allows and leave the politics to the civilians elected to do such.
    This is why we have a representative form of government and if you don’t loke the leaders, there is always another election cycle for you to express your desire. Until then, salute and carry on!

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  42. DrDaveT says:

    @de stijl:

    By tradition and oath, all military men and women are beholden to civilian command. You cannot pick and choose orders based on who ordered them.

    Absolutely, but what does that have to do with loyalty? As several commenters upthread have noted, obedience and loyalty are not at all the same thing.

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  43. James will probably beat me for this, but I’m going to address a handful of comments here:

    1. For everyone who is demanding proof Gen Neller stepped over the line, I offer this sentence, lifted directly from the first paragraph: “So the rest of this post is predicated on the future substantiation to some greater degree of certainty the CMC, or his staff, with his tacit or explicit permission, leaked the memos.” In truth it doesn’t matter whether he did or didn’t for the sake of the civil-military relations discussion. If I had concocted a fictional scenario wherein General Neller leaked internal memorandums, we could have this discussion without the distraction of people demanding proof. I don’t care if he did or didn’t. All I’m saying is IF he did, he should be fired. Reading is fundamental.

    2. I’m using “loyalty” in this context to mean “not disloyal.” We have a chain of command. Neller and POTUS are at the top of it. POTUS is entitled to the same type of “loyalty” that a Lieutenant Colonel battalion commander should expect from a Captain company commander. By loyalty, I mean, of course, obedience to both written and unwritten orders without question, UNLESS those orders stray into the area of the illegal or manifestly immoral — like ordering a massacre, or ordering an underling to reprogram the proceed of unlawful missile sales to fund a rebel group which had been specifically defunded by Congress, or deliberately falsifying intelligence to justify an invasion. I do appreciate the distinctions between loyalty to the President and loyalty to the constitution, so let me clarify: if General Neller leaked memos the President was entitled to keep internal to DOD and the White House, then General Neller violated his *constitutional* oath. There. Happy? “Obedience” and “loyalty” can be the same thing in certain contexts. This is one of those contexts, because the President hasn’t ordered the Marine Corps to do anything immoral or illegal. He has ordered the Marine Corps, and all of DOD, to do some things many people would think are a terrible idea, on policy grounds, but those orders are *clearly* within his authority as CINC. And the people have a remedy, in May and November of 2020.

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  44. @DrDaveT: the answers to your questions are in the LA Times story, linked above.

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  45. @DrDaveT: My view is once those memos were addressed to the Secretaries, they were no longer the Commandant’s to release, in that they became the “property” of the addressee.

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  46. @Bob@Youngstown: “So the rest of this post is predicated on the future substantiation to some greater degree of certainty the CMC, or his staff, with his tacit or explicit permission, leaked the memos.” Reading is fundamental.

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  47. @Leroy Brown: I’m concerned about the Marines. But not so concerned that the ends justifies the means — in this case, the release of the memos will have undermined the trust the President has in his subordinate generals. That’s a *particularly* bad outcome given who is in the Oval Office.

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  48. Stuart Blackwell says:

    @James Joyner: If an order is outside the President’s power, it isn’t legal. To follow it blindly is failing an officer’s oath to support the Constitution. (59 years of service in 3 generations.)

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  49. @Michael Reynolds: You’re overinterpreting “loyalty” in this context.

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  50. @Stuart Blackwell: Of course. And this order by the President is *plainly* valid and constitutional, even if it’s a terrible idea.

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  51. CJ says:

    @dennis: one word: politics

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  52. 1775 says:

    Having served in the Marine Corps for 30 years, to include having Gen Neller as my Commanding General (I served on his staff at that command), and serving with him on another staff – I can say without a shred of doubt that the Commandant did not leak anything nor did he order someone to do it for him. I remember a conversation that I and others had with the General, on matters of service and commitment to the Marine Corps as leaders, where the General said that he had gotten to where he is today by “Not doing something that would get me investigated”. Do I think that there are bureaucrats in DOD that would not think twice about setting up the Commandant so they could forward their agenda against President Trump, your damn right I do. I will leave you with two facts 1. General Neller would never telegraph readiness issues within the Marine Corps that our advisories would benefit from. 2. General Neller would never do anything that would result in him being only the second Commandant of the Marine Corps to be fired by a President of the United States (Yes, you read that correctly. Only one Commandant has been removed from his duties in our history. LtCol Anthony Gale was relieved from his duties as the 4th Commandant of the Marine Corps by President James Monroe in 1820, after being found guilty at courts martial for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentlemen).

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  53. 1775 says:

    @James Joyner: Or in 2024 after his second term is up.

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  54. 1775 says:

    @Kim: Officers in the Armed Forces serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.

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  55. Israel says:

    ☝Author is wrong☝

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  56. …because?? We deal in ideas here, rather than unjustified conclusions. I may well be wrong, but you’ll have to do better than that.

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  57. Ericka says:

    Having served as a US Marine, I’m well aware of the fact that the UCMJ addresses speaking out against the POTUS et al. However, when given a direct order to do something that you know is wrong, that is no excuse to follow it. Active duty are not allowed to express their personal political opinions, most especially if they counter the current administration. If in fact, the CMC leaked this (which I doubt) he must’ve had a pretty dang good reason. Not excusing it, simply supporting his role as leader and caretaker of US Marines, because it seems that the POTUS feels that we are his personal toy soldiers. When you have the Commandant of the Marine Corps, a career Marine, questioning the actions of the POTUS…something is very wrong. Because if there is one thing we Marines are known for is our loyalty and integrity.

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