President Donald Trump’s attack on the Navy SEAL commander who oversaw the raid against Osama bin Laden is drawing new attention to the seesaw dynamic of a President who lavishes praise on the military even as he goes after its leaders and heroes.
The President dismissed the highly respected Adm. William McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and backer of former President Barack Obama in a Sunday interview with Fox News.
The comments drew sharp criticism from former officials, rumbles of dissatisfaction from veterans and veiled expressions of concern that Trump – or the highly charged political atmosphere under his administration – may be nudging the strictly nonpartisan military into the arena of politics.
Even as presidential defenders such as his counselor Kellyanne Conway argued that “no president has shown greater respect for the military and the veterans,” or funded it as generously, Trump’s dig at McRaven underscored a more ambiguous track record on the armed services.
The President has insulted war heroes, prisoners of war, Gold Star families and, some critics say, tried to use the troops to score political points. He’s directed 5% cuts at Veterans Affairs, which for some time he left in the control of non-veterans who happened to be members of his Mar-a-Lago club.
He’s neglected to visit combat zones, unlike other presidents, suggested troops’ midterm election ballots not be counted, passed up Veterans Day ceremonies other leaders made time to attend and repeatedly said he knows more about military issues than generals do.
“These unnecessary unforced errors, when you attack people like Adm. McRaven and (the late Sen. John) McCain, it shows a lack of respect that’s just baffling,” said Melissa Bryant, chief policy officer at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and a veteran of the Iraq War.
But James Carafano, a vice president of foreign and defense policy at the Heritage Foundation, says any complaints about Trump’s treatment of the military are just about partisanship.
“I don’t think it’s really an issue,” said Carafano, who served in the military for 25 years. “I think it’s a partisan issue masquerading as a civil military issue.”
The code and culture of the military bar active-duty officials from criticizing the commander in chief, and the emphasis on the importance of an apolitical service is underscored by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which states any officers who use “contemptuous words” about the President could face punishment.
That hasn’t precluded serving officers from carefully making the distinction between military policy versus politics.
“We do have a very strong, nonpartisan, apolitical ethos in the US military,” Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at a conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Sunday. He was responding to a question about the use of troops on the southern border to counter a group of Central American migrants headed to the US to seek asylum.
The deployment was widely seen as a campaign ploy, particularly after Trump stopped raising the issue as frequently after the midterms. “We don’t participate in politics, and we’re very careful … to stay in our lane and address the military dimension of the problem and not comment on policy,” Dunford said.
Some current and former military officials have made pointed remarks, though. Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of Central Command, Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of Special Operations Command, and McRaven have all praised the media – a frequent Trump target – and commented on the importance of a free press.
So far, veterans are sticking by the President and his party, at least at the ballot box.
CNN’s exit polls show that 60% of veterans backed Trump in 2016 and 63% supported Republicans in that year’s ongressional races, while 36% backed Democrats. In 2018, the percentage of veterans backing Republicans fell to 58%, while 41% gave their votes to Democrats.
Even so, Trump, on edge about contested Florida races in the midterm elections, tweeted to say that absentee ballots – many of which are cast by troops, their dependents and contractors deployed overseas – should not be counted.
Bryant, at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, acknowledges Trump’s successes on the military, including funding that Defense Secretary James Mattis described in March as “the largest military budget in history” and programs for veterans like a new GI Bill.
But she and other veterans said there’s frustration that the President is quick to claim credit for successes and happy to bask in the reflection of the military’s luster – as when he floated the idea of a military parade in Washington – but doesn’t follow through on tough issues.
That includes addressing some of the long-term troubles inside the VA. Problems in implementing an expanded GI Bill have meant that thousands of veterans are facing eviction or don’t have the money for gas, groceries or schooling because the VA is months late with payments. Thousands are suffering, said Bryant, listing the GI Bill disaster alongside a crisis in veteran suicide, housing, health care and support for female veterans as areas that need better leadership.
“These are things he needs to address, and he’s never there to address the hard problems,” Bryant said of the President. “He’s there only when he wants to tout achievements, and frankly they’re not his alone – advocates and lawmakers have been working for years on these issues.”
On top of that, she added, “there’s the disrespectful angle.”
“There’s not visiting troops overseas, not once,” she said, referring to combat postings such as Afghanistan or Iraq. “He skipped the Paris cemetery when other leaders of the world made it” for a ceremony to honor World War I dead, Bryant noted. Trump later said Secret Service had decided he couldn’t attend because of weather and traffic issues.
Trump also skipped out of a Veterans Day wreath laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, across the river from the White House, though VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was there. The President told Fox News on Sunday that he had made a mistake in skipping the event.
And then, Bryant says, Trump “seems to have a trend of going after war heroes – McRaven, McCain – people who are viewed in the military space and more broadly as thought leaders, all because they criticize him. That’s what’s troubling.”
The President’s habit of belittling military expertise and military heroes was on display during the 2016 presidential campaign, when he said McCain was “not a war hero” because he’d been captured during the Vietnam War. Trump received several draft deferments during the war, one for bone spurs in his heels. The then-candidate also mocked the Pakistani-American family of a US soldier who had died in the Iraq War. And he said he knew more than “the generals” about the terror group ISIS or about “offense and defense than they will ever understand. Believe me.”
’I ignore it’
Once in the White House, Trump refused to issue a statement about McCain’s death a few months ago or use the word “hero,” settling instead for a brief tweet. He has publicly contradicted Mattis in tweets – announcing in August that military exercises with South Korea would not continue a day after Mattis had indicated they would.
And in an October interview with “60 Minutes,” the President returned to his claims that he’s more of an expert on military issues than Pentagon staff, saying he knows more about the NATO than Mattis, who he described as “sort of a Democrat.”
Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal told CNN there’s “a certain honesty to what’s happening now.” He noted that “The President didn’t go to Arlington Cemetery for Veterans Day, and maybe that’s honest, because if you really don’t care, it would be dishonest to pretend that you do.”
Carafano of the Heritage Foundation says the public should treat Trump’s words the way the President himself does.
“We’ve seen him say terrible things about something to one person and then turn around the next day and say wonderful things about that same person. That’s just how he expresses himself,” Carafano said.
“You cannot craft a policy listening to the President’s comments and tweeting. When he says something about an individual in the military, he doesn’t see it as saying something about the military in general.” Carafano added. “I ignore it.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne, Zachary Cohen, Betsy Klein, Jim Sciutto and Grace Sparks contributed to this report