Donald Trump’s insults of war heroes and military families who criticize him are a feature, not a bug, of his presidency.
Bill McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL and Special Operations commander who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden and the capture of Saddam Hussein, is just the latest veteran to face Trump’s ire. “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace asked the president about McRaven’s comment that Trump referring to the free press as “the enemy of the people” is the greatest threat to democracy. Rather than respond to the substance of this critique, Trump dismissed McRaven as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and an “Obama backer.” Then he said the four-star admiral should have caught bin Laden earlier.
“Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?” the president said. “Everybody in Pakistan knew he was there.”
The president’s counterpunching betrayed a lack of basic knowledge about how these kinds of operations work. A former deputy CIA director, Michael Morell, noted that it was never McRaven’s job to find bin Laden. He tweeted “Correction needed to POTUS’s comment today that McRaven should have found bin Laden sooner. CIA did the ‘finding.’ McRaven’s special operators did the ‘getting.’ They moved within days of President Obama giving the order.”
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A former director of the CIA and NSA, retired four-star Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, also wondered why Trump hasn’t taken out other terrorist leaders in hiding, tweeting “How you doing on Zawahiri, Mr President? Abu Bakr al Baghdadi? BillMcRaven is a naval officer and an American hero. Like the ones that gave all at Belleau Woods. You remember them, right?”
McRaven recently stepped down as chancellor of the University of Texas system to battle leukemia.
“I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else,” he said in a statement to CNN. “I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for. I admire all presidents, regardless of their political party, who uphold the dignity of the office and who use that office to bring the nation together in challenging times. I stand by my comment that the President’s attack on the media is the greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime. When you undermine the people’s right to a free press and freedom of speech and expression, then you threaten the Constitution and all for which it stands.”
(McRaven also criticized Trump this summer for revoking former CIA director John Brennan’s security clearance in an op-ed for The Washington Post.)
Trump, who gave himself an “A+” for his overall performance as president in the Fox interview, routinely claims that he’s a champion for those who have served in uniform. “Nobody has been better at the military,” Trump said last month. “I have done more for the military than any president in many, many years.”
“I think the vets, maybe more than anybody else, appreciate what we are doing for them,” he added during an event at the White House last week.
But Trump often hasn’t lived up to his rhetoric. Among other things, he never apologized to John McCain before he died. The president said the late Arizona senator was not a war hero because he got captured. When retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen endorsed Clinton in 2016, Trump blasted the former commander of the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan as “a failed general.”
Thanks to Trump, more than 5,000 American G.I.s who would have spent Thanksgiving with their families will instead be separated from them — deployed at the southern border, waiting around for the arrival of a caravan of migrant families from Central America.
“He likes to pound his chest and talk tough, but he has not served our nation in uniform,” said Rep.-elect Jason Crow, D-Colo., a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They’re going to be spending yet another holiday away from their families in tents without running water.”
Crow is one of at least nine Democrats who won House seats this month who served in the armed forces, intelligence services or in national security roles at State or DOD. When they get seated in January, they plan to launch an investigation into whether Trump’s politically motivated deployment wasted taxpayer resources, according to Karoun Demirjian and Dave Weigel.
Last week, on Veterans Day, Trump suggested that ballots cast by active duty members of the military who are deployed overseas should not be counted in Florida. He said that the state “must go with election night” numbers and not count new ballots that arrived afterward. He said this four days before the deadline, under Florida law, for military ballots to arrive that had been postmarked by Nov. 6.
The same day, he broke with tradition and — for the second year in a row — did not visit Arlington National Cemetery on the holiday. That was even after he took heavy criticism for skipping a Saturday ceremony in France to honor the end of World War I. The White House blamed rain, but the leaders of France, Germany and Canada still showed up.
Two years into the job, Trump still has not visited U.S. troops in a combat zone — and he canceled a planned trip last week to see some of the troops he deployed to the border. In the Fox interview, Trump made a rare acknowledgment that he erred by blowing off Arlington on Veterans Day.
“I should have done that,” he said. “I was extremely busy on calls for the country, we did a lot of calling as you know.” He also hinted that a plan to visit a war zone is in the works and said he hasn’t been able to go so far because he’s been so busy.
Trump, who avoided serving in Vietnam by claiming he had bone spurs in his feet, has gone golfing on more than 100 days of his presidency. He said in 1997 that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases while promiscuously gallivanting around New York City in the 1970s was “my personal Vietnam.”
“Trump recently has signaled discontent with the top retired generals serving in his administration, raising questions about whether he is souring on the military brass in his orbit,” Paul Sonne and Phil Rucker report. “Earlier this year, he derided Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as ‘sort of a Democrat.’ In Sunday’s interview, he said that there are things [John] Kelly does that he doesn’t like and that at some point he will move on from the chief of staff position.”
“Rhetorically, Mr. Trump has embraced the United States’ 1.3 million active-duty troops as ‘my military’ and ‘my generals’ … But top Defense Department officials say that Mr. Trump has not fully grasped the role of the troops he commands, nor the responsibility that he has to lead them and protect them from politics,” the New York Times reported Saturday.
He doesn’t believe in the mission: “One reason he has not visited troops in war zones, according to his aides, is that he does not really want American troops there in the first place. To visit, they said, would validate missions he does not truly believe in.”
Another telling detail that shows how disinterested he is in details: “Shortly after becoming commander in chief, President Trump asked so few questions in a briefing at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., that top military commanders cut the number of prepared PowerPoint slides to three — they had initially planned 18. … The commanders had slotted two hours for the meeting, but it lasted less than one,” per Helene Cooper, Peter Baker, Eric Schmitt and Mitchell Ferman.
“There was the belief that over time, he would better understand, but I don’t know that that’s the case,” said Col. David Lapan, a retired Marine who served in the Trump administration in 2017 as a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, in an interview with the Times. “I don’t think that he understands the proper use and role of the military and what we can, and can’t, do.”
Many veterans and mental-health advocates also bristled two weeks ago when Trump appeared to blame the massacre at a Thousand Oaks, Calif., nightclub on the post-traumatic stress disorder of a Marine veteran who had served in Afghanistan. Trump began speculating about PTSD when asked about 28-year-old Marine veteran Ian David Long, who killed 12 people at the country-music bar in California before killing himself.
“He was a Marine. He was in the war. He served time. He saw some pretty bad things, and a lot of people say he had PTSD, and that’s a tough deal,” Trump said after describing the shooter as a “very sick puppy.” “People come back – that’s why it’s a horrible thing – they come back, they’re never the same.”
“Trump’s broad-brush remarks outside the White House on Friday prompted concern that the president was amplifying stereotypes suggesting PTSD turns veterans into violent killers and that all service members come home somehow damaged from combat,” Sonne reported. “It is not clear whether Long had been formally diagnosed with PTSD before his death.”
Subsequent reporting has revealed that Long had a pattern of being violent and unable to control his temper for years before he joined the military.
Moreover, Trump has had several awkward and testy interactions with Gold Star families.
Weeks into his presidency, Trump traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet the family of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens, who had died during a mission in Yemen. According to Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” the experience was so uncomfortable for the president that “he let it be known the would make no more trips to Dover.” “No one said anything harsh, but there was a definite coldness that the president remembered,” Woodward reported.
Trump had personally authorized the operation in which Owens died, but the president blamed the generals for the outcome. He said on Fox News at the time that the commanders “came to see me and they explained what they wanted to do. … And they lost Ryan.”
Last fall, Trump called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson after he was killed in action in Niger. She said he stumbled recalling her husband’s name and told her that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”
“Very upset and hurt; it made me cry even worse,” Myeshia Johnson said of her conversation with the president, saying Trump’s tone made her angry. “If my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name?”
Trump disputed Johnson’s account and said he was “very respectful” in tweets about the incident. A congresswoman who was in the room when it happened validated the widow’s account.
In a phone call to another grieving Gold Star father, Chris Baldridge, after his son was killed in Afghanistan in June 2017, Trump said he’d send a personal check for $25,000 and would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened — until after The Washington Post pressed the White House on the issue four months later.
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The Washington Post’s Joanie Greve contributed to this report.