COLUMBUS, Ga. — Pat Donahoe has something to say. Many things, in fact.

For months, the former Fort Benning commander and head of the Maneuver Center of Excellence remained mum while Army officials deliberated his fate. He’d decided to leave the Army, his retirement already approved. But would he be allowed to retire as a two-star general?

In September, the Department of the Army inspector general formally concluded the fast-talking New Jersey native had violated Army policies during three separate incidents on Twitter. There was one where he pushed back against Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s tirade against women in uniform, a second where he virtually waded into the crowd and debated right-wing trolls, and a third where he traded public tweets with a lieutenant training under his command.

But Donahoe, long known for his willingness to address problems publicly and head-on through the same social media feeds that later brought him under scrutiny, had to sit in silence as media reports revealed his planned retirement (previously slated for Oct. 1) would be delayed while senior officials weighed punishing him.

To hear him tell it, his experience illustrates two broader problems: the Army’s over-reliance on plodding administrative inquiries as a crutch for addressing allegations big or small, and its ongoing struggle to define and govern social media for those in uniform.

It took inspector general officials more than a year to work through a series of allegations repeatedly made by a colonel angered by Donahoe’s decision to reorganize the maneuver training center. Accusations ranged from how he handled the reorganization to vague incidents such as another colonel’s feeling slighted by an award ceremony. Then the investigator zeroed in on the commander’s social media conduct.

On Oct. 11, the topic derailed the service’s painstakingly-curated messaging plans at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference, where leaders launch new initiatives and concepts. Nearly half of the first round of questions to the Army’s top leaders at a press conference were related to Donahoe, his investigation, or related social media concerns. Senior leaders quickly found themselves off script from the service’s sleek 14-page “communications playbook” created by a public relations contractor in preparation for the event.

It was an unfamiliar, uncomfortable place, he recounted to an Army Times reporter in a sheltered nook of a Columbus coffee shop in his first on-the-record interview since retiring on Jan. 1 as a two-star general without a formal reprimand or punishment. Army Times, which first broke the news of the investigation in September, has exclusively published the 41-page investigative report below.

“We consider this case closed,” said Army spokesperson Cynthia O. Smith said in a statement to Army Times that confirmed Donahoe’s retirement as a major general.

“I’m at the YMCA on the elliptical…[while] watching the AUSA press conference,” Donahoe said. “I was sick to my stomach by the end of that. [It’s] a really hard place to be in an adversarial relationship with the leaders of your service. That is not something I’ve ever desired.”

Over the course of an hours-long interview that overcast day, Donahoe made his case — covering social media policy, disinformation, administrative investigations and more. He’s calling for the Army to fundamentally reevaluate how it considers social media in a world where abandoning “the social media space” amid controversy can end a general’s career, but jumping into the online fray when prominent commentators attack women in uniform leads to an investigation.

He thinks the Army should tolerate those who make well-intended mistakes, as he did. “If they’re doing it in the spirit of standing up for Army values [and] defending Army regulations, Army decisions [and] Army policies, but [it] may not exactly be worded in the best way, we should make accommodations for them,” the retired two-star said.

Donahoe wants one thing to be clear: even after more than a year under IG investigation, a media frenzy, and doubt over his retirement, he still loves the Army and wants to help everyone from individual soldiers to the service itself learn from his tribulations. But that may require a reevaluation of where social media fits into the service’s sweeping “information advantage” plans and how to govern and respond to issues in that space.

“If my experience is illustrative or educational... I hope the Army can benefit from it. We need better guardrails and guidance on what we want folks doing,” he said. “First off, the Army’s got to say, this is a problem that needs to be addressed. And then we need structure. And we need policy, we need regulation to be able to deal with it.”

“I don’t think we’ve come to that understanding as an Army,” he concluded with a grimace.

The investigation

Donahoe first came under scrutiny from the inspector general in December 2020 when a colonel working for him at the Maneuver Center of Excellence, which is the Army proponent for infantry and armor training and doctrine, filed a complaint alleging that he was a “toxic and counterproductive leader.”

The unnamed colonel, who the inspector general noted kept a journal of his interactions with Donahoe and “slights and behaviors described by others over time,” also complained about his commander’s tweets in one of many subsequent additions to his original report.

After initial interviews, the inspector general dismissed the allegations in April 2021 without a formal investigation because they were “not credible” and Donahoe had responded to their concerns. But that changed July 26, 2021, when Army Public Affairs officials informed Army Secretary Christine Wormuth that Donahoe’s Twitter interactions sparring with right-wing figures had garnered attention.

The next day, the inspector general revived the allegations of poor leadership and launched a formal investigation into Donahoe’s social media behavior.

The toxic leadership allegations arose because a group of senior infantry officers, including the first colonel who complained, was displeased with Donahoe’s decision to restructure the maneuver center to balance the number of infantry with armor officers, who were outnumbered by their infantry peers, according to the report. They’d seemingly coordinated their answers on a command climate survey prior to the investigation, the document notes.

The unnamed colonel continued submitting additional complaints, accusing Donahoe of failing to treat him with “dignity and respect” when the general reassigned him after he completed the minimum year required to receive an annual evaluation, which rated him in the “top 2 of the 20 Colonels on the MCoE Staff” and recommended him for promotion to brigadier general, according to the report.

A second colonel told the investigator he was upset that Donahoe didn’t congratulate him for selection to attend the Army War College and presented the colonel with an award without his subordinates present.

After extensive interviews, the inspector general concluded that Donahoe did not exhibit counterproductive leadership while directing the reorganization, nor did he retaliate against the initial complainant or treat him without dignity and respect.

But for social media conduct, the investigator ultimately faulted Donahoe for three series of posts.

Donahoe agrees he was in the wrong on one of those episodes.

When the general made a Twitter post encouraging the COVID-19 vaccine in July 2021, a right-wing provocateur — who was later banned from the platform — instigated an argument with Donahoe about whether he should focus on the vaccine or suicide prevention initiatives. Over the next three days, Donahoe responded to the original critic and others, in what the inspector general described as a “snarky” tone.

The investigator concluded that the Fort Benning commander “did not act with dignity and respect, particularly in intimating that disagreeing with him somehow may equate to disloyalty to the U.S. Further the negative social media and national media attention to [Maj. Gen.] Donahoe and the Army demonstrated another lapse in judgment that was not commensurate with a [general officer] in the public eye.”

Army Times asked Donahoe to reflect on those findings.

“I should have stepped away from that engagement, even though it was an engagement about the vaccine and about disinformation,” he said. “I was overly snarky. I was [acting like] a teenage New Jerseyan at that point.”

Smith, the Army spokesperson, emphasized the need for “good judgment” when leaders engage on social media “with dignity and respect.” The service’s top civilian, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth, told reporters at the October press conference that generals need to avoid being “drawn into...the inflammatory kind of environment that frankly Twitter really lends itself to.”

Wormuth added that senior leaders “have to choose their words very carefully.”

But the other incidents are less clear-cut, Donahoe contended.

In March 2021 after conservative commentator Tucker Carlson made controversial remarks arguing that women don’t belong in the military, Donahoe shared a video of a woman’s reenlistment ceremony atop a tank with a message that said Carlson “couldn’t be more wrong.” Other leaders, including Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston and Gen. Paul Funk — now retired, but then Donahoe’s boss as the Training and Doctrine command’s top general — posted quote tweets atop a NCO’s reply to Donahoe’s tweet endorsing his sentiment.

Even the inspector general’s investigator admitted the effort was “potentially admirable.”

But the report ultimately declares the post “exhibited poor judgement [sic]…[and] subsequent media coverage drew national attention for [Maj. Gen.] Donahoe and did not reflect an Army culture of dignity and respect, and it cast the Army in a negative light.” The inspector general concluded the tweets violated the service’s vague “think, type, post” social media policy and service-wide command policy.

Over coffee in Columbus, Donahoe quipped he was “in good company” when he responded to Carlson and argued the inspector general should not have concluded he violated a regulation in that instance.

“We value the women that serve in the United States Army,” he said. “And we’ve got to say that loudly and proudly…It’s a challenge to the cohesion of the Army, when an entire population inside the Army feels that senior leaders aren’t willing to defend them publicly, and we should never step away from that duty as senior leaders.”

In the third incident, the general was found to have violated part of a Training and Doctrine Command regulation that prohibits communication between training officers and officers attending the Basic Officer Leader Course — the second stage of officer education that trains them in their specialty. The cited portion of the regulation, TRADOC 350-36, is overwhelmingly focused on preventing the sexual and financial exploitation of vulnerable young officers at the hands of their trainers.

But the investigator ruled Donahoe exchanging a public joke on Twitter about assisting on a training project with an armor lieutenant — and later admonishing her to “go to sleep” to end the conversation — violated the rule.

The general said the investigator failed to consider the full context of the exchange. According to his response, summarized by the inspector general, the lieutenant was facing online threats and harassment after posting a photograph of herself with insignia associated with combat arms. In Donahoe’s eyes, publicly interacting with the officer was a way to fulfill his command responsibility to shield a subordinate facing online attacks.

Inspector general officials disagreed, saying the interaction could lead others to believe “he had given her preferential treatment over other students…while [Maj. Gen.] Donahoe stated he was joking when he made the comments [about being ‘co-author’ on her battle analysis project], the cadre had no way of knowing that.” They concluded it “had serious impacts [on] the effectiveness of his training staff.”

Donahoe reiterated to Army Times that he disagreed with the investigators, who he added did not interview the officer’s brigade commander to ask whether the tweets had impacted his training mission.

He also argued that the regulation “speaks to private interactions” rather than public-facing posts on sites like Twitter, which he equated to “me screaming across the street at that person and them screaming back.” The findings reflect “a misunderstanding of how the systems work. I am intervening publicly where she’s been threatened with sexual violence.”

In his eyes, “that should not be a substantiated violation of any policy or Army value.” But Smith, the Army spokesperson, rejected Donahoe’s interpretation and said the regulation “applies to all forms of communication. Furthermore, it is the conduct and relationship that is being regulated irrespective of format.”

Amid harassment that continued beyond the investigation, the lieutenant later deleted her public social media accounts.

‘A conclusion in search of evidence’

As Donahoe puts it, his exit from the Army epitomizes a culture that has gone overboard on administrative investigations of all stripes.

“We have this investigatory culture now [where] everything has to be an [administrative investigation],” he argued. “I think that stems from how we operated in Iraq and Afghanistan, where every interaction outside the wire had to be substantiated or documented for the record.”

Donahoe decried the IG report, saying, “In many places, it looks like a conclusion in search of evidence.” And for administrative investigations, an investigator merely has to assemble enough evidence to demonstrate an allegation is more likely than not — or 51% likely — in order to deem it “substantiated” under the preponderance of evidence standard.

The two-star called inspector general investigations in their current state “the most un-American process you can imagine.”

It’s not just inspector general investigations, though. In the Army, there’s an administrative investigation for every situation. As Donahoe put it, the practice has “bled into our culture now. We investigate everything immediately.”

Lost equipment? Initiate a Financial Liability Investigation of Property Loss — or FLIPL.

Think someone has done something questionable? An administrative investigation under Army Regulation 15-6 following “informal procedures” can be “used in any administrative action against an individual, regardless of the particular procedures used, and regardless of whether that individual was a subject or designated as a respondent.” Those punishments can include involuntary discharges, reliefs, forfeitures and more.

Under defense department regulations, the Pentagon-wide inspector general holds responsibility for investigations into senior officials. But they “may” delegate inquiries against lower-ranking generals to the Army inspector general, Army spokesperson Smith said. That’s what happened in Donahoe’s case.

Reading the report, the peculiarity of the investigator’s task becomes apparent.

To evaluate whether Donahoe violated regulations banning “counterproductive leadership,” the investigator compared his behavior against a list of doctrinally-defined hypothetical “destructive” leaders. The labels range from “incompetent manager” to “affable non-participant,” “insensitive driven achiever,” and even “toxic self-centered abuser.”

In Donahoe’s case, the original complainant accused him of fitting three of those categories, none of which the investigator substantiated. For the social media allegations, the investigator was charged with calculating whether it was more likely than not that the general had violated edicts such as “think, type, post” and failed to display the Army Values.

Donahoe expressed frustration that despite the inexact nature of the investigations, accused soldiers have little rights in the proceedings. Whistleblower protections prevent the accused from confronting the complainant, he said, and the accused’s attorney is not permitted to speak during any interviews with the investigator.

“[Maj. Gen.] Donahoe was afforded due process throughout the investigation in accordance with Army policy,” Smith said. In a text message commenting on Smith’s statement, Donahoe argued that the service’s “current policy doesn’t allow for due process as most Americans understand it...[the current policy] is why it is this way.”

He also argued that such systems can be “weaponized” by those who disagree with policy decisions in order to create an investigative cloud hanging over commands. “And they were effective,” he added.

Moreover, IG investigations often stretch out for months on end. Donahoe first received preliminary results of the investigation in September 2022, about 14 months after it formally began, “for a relatively simple allegation.”

“I was under investigation for three-quarters of the time I was in command [at Fort Benning],” he estimated. “That’s dysfunctional. The fact that we can’t get investigations completed in a timely manner is a challenge to our command authorities…we need to solve that as an Army.”

The general also believes that if the investigation had been completed in a timely manner, the public relations disaster over his retirement delay may have never occurred, saying with a laugh, “I think the only reason you know my name is that we couldn’t finish an investigation in time for me to retire.”

Part of the problem may lie with the sheer volume of high-stakes investigations the office handles, as well as the complex administrative processes that govern them.

According to data provided by Smith, the Army inspector general has formally investigated 71 allegations against at least 17 general officers since the start of fiscal 2019 (many cases, such as Donahoe’s, include multiple allegations against a single officer). Of those, 24 — or roughly 1 in 3 — allegations were deemed substantiated.

Asked why inspector general investigations can take years, Smith cited the uniqueness of each investigation and said, “[The inspector general] develops an investigative plan for each investigation and modifies that plan as the Investigating Officer gathers evidence and allegations are added or removed. The duration of an investigation is dependent on the nature of the complaint and the allegations presented.”

And investigations delegated down to the Army inspector general from the defense department inspector general must be reviewed and approved by the military-wide watchdog before Army-level officials can take action on the findings, offering another potential source of delay.

In some cases, external factors can also intervene. When the defense department inspector general wanted to investigate claims that an Army brigadier general’s workplace conduct had harmed the effectiveness of the White House Military Office, officials were unable to even begin their investigation for more than a year due to disagreements between White House and Pentagon attorneys over interview procedures and related issues.

‘A clear insider threat’

And while the investigation into Donahoe’s leadership and social media conduct dragged on, influential anonymous right-wing social media accounts (most notably the person known as “TerminalCWO,” known for attacking COVID-19 policies) amplified and spread rumors about the allegations against him. The same users often attack other DoD officials and policies, passing along disinformation via Telegram, Instagram and other platforms to their tens of thousands of followers.

“These are admitted, self-identified soldiers and officers serving in the United States Army [who are] hiding behind a thin veneer of anonymity, who are violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice online every day,” Donahoe said. “[They’re] attacking good order and discipline in the formation, or ridiculing civilian oversight of the military, or making racist and misogynistic attacks on leaders and soldiers.”

While commanding Fort Benning, Donahoe took action against an officer there who was running one such account which harshly criticized a brigade commander based on remarks the commander had made in a private meeting. The account administrator, when pressed for a source by his followers, revealed he’d been in the room. A subsequent investigation was able to substantiate that the officer was behind the account, due to self-professed biographical details on the account — such as prior Marine Corps service — that matched only one officer who was in the room.

The officer is currently awaiting discharge after facing an involuntary separation process where he received multiple reprimands and other punishments for his conduct until he had to face a “show cause” board to justify continued service in light of his misconduct, Donahoe said. But investigating and punishing such conduct is more difficult if an account has multiple administrators, or if they lay in another chain of command elsewhere in the service.

“Who in the Army should pursue that?” he asked in frustration as he described his attempts to report servicemembers he believed were linked to similar accounts but were assigned to other commands. Donahoe said he tried reporting to the inspector general and the service’s Criminal Investigation Division, but neither to his knowledge have investigated his claims.

“And part of the problem here is that it’s a clear insider threat,” the general argued. “Some of these individuals [running such accounts] have top secret security clearances and they are out there behind screen names…we need to have policies and authorities to get after this in a timely manner.”

Donahoe worries that the Army may lack the institutional attention span to address the problem, which he said would require concerted bureaucratic effort to establish structures, policies and regulations “to deal with it.”

Avoiding ‘muzzling’

The retired general cautioned that the service needs to put in the time and effort to meaningfully address personal social media conduct lest it “pull everybody off social media and…cede that information space. And it will only be those neutral or malicious actors out there who are coming after [us].”

However, recent policy changes (and companion Army guidance) are pulling senior troops away from personal social media accounts that reference their service or positions. Smith, the Army spokesperson, said an “Army Directive on social media is in staffing. The directive will make updates to existing public affairs policies and regulations.”

Under the most recent changes, personal account users must now “avoid” such links, and senior officials and public affairs personnel are strictly prohibited from maintaining personal accounts that post official guidance. Instead, senior leaders who want to communicate in an official capacity on social media must do so from generic accounts that will be archived and put on the shelf when they move to another position and retire.

Donahoe thinks moves like that risk alienating junior troops who are more online than any previous generation and “expect candid interactions with their leadership.”

“The only way that’s really possible [for senior leaders] is on social media,” he argued. “I don’t think muzzling everybody is the right answer.”

But that’s going to require the Army to accept a little risk that the thumbs behind the screens occasionally make mistakes, Donahoe said. Those who do should receive “accommodations” if their missteps were born from good intentions.

If the Army wants his input in developing the policies that find that balance, he’s ready to contribute “whatever I can do to help [the] institution.”

Despite his bumpy exit from the service, Donahoe, who will remain in Columbus in his retirement, described himself as “optimistic” about the progress the Army has made in recent years.

“Whether they involve me in it or not, [the Army] has the opportunity to learn…the right lessons” from his experience, he said. “Each of us individually as senior leaders in the Army need to be empowered to communicate with their own formations, with the Army and whole [defense department], and with the American people. And we should be empowered and trusted to communicate on behalf of the Army for that.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to accurately state the military duty status of both an officer who faced reprimand from Donahoe and another non-commissioned officer who was referenced in social media exchanges with the retired major general.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists' 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.