The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Trump can’t stop personally attacking military veterans

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said on July 18, 2015 that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was not a war hero because he had been captured. (Video: C-SPAN)

With only a small portion of the American public now serving in the military, our presidents are no longer expected to have served. This isn’t really a problem; while such experience can be valuable in confronting some of the challenges a president faces, we’ve had both great and terrible presidents who wore the uniform.

But we’ve certainly never had a president who displayed Donald Trump’s combination of boastful claims about how devoted he is to the military and regular displays of contempt for those who have served or are still serving.

Part of it comes from Trump’s refusal to concern himself with the habits and norms that govern politics, which doesn’t necessarily have to be unhealthy. But it also comes from the fact that Trump has no evident principles that he holds dearer than servicing the demands of his own ego.

In the latest controversy, Trump appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” during which host Chris Wallace tried to ask him about criticism he received from retired Adm. William H. McRaven over the president’s attacks on the media.

Retired Navy admiral William H. McRaven called President Trump’s denunciation of the media a threat to democracy in a speech at UT-Austin. (Video: The University of Texas at Austin)

Here’s how it went:

Wallace: Bill McRaven, Retired Admiral, Navy Seal, 37 years, former head of U.S. Special Operations —
Trump: Hillary Clinton fan.
Wallace: Special Operation —
Trump: Excuse me, Hillary Clinton fan.
Wallace: Who led the operations, commanded the operations that took down Saddam Hussein and that killed Osama bin Laden, says that your sentiment is the greatest threat to democracy in his life.
Trump: Okay, he’s a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer and frankly —
Wallace: He’s a Navy SEAL —
Trump: Would it have been nicer if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn’t it been nice? Living — think of this, living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan and what I guess in what they considered a nice mansion, I don’t know, I’ve seen nicer.
But living in Pakistan right next to the military academy, everybody in Pakistan knew he was there. And we give Pakistan $1.3 billion and year and they don’t tell him, they don’t tell him —
Wallace: You’re not even going to give them credit for taking down Bin Laden?

McRaven released a statement noting that in fact he did not support Hillary Clinton in 2016, and expressing his admiration for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, both of whom he served under. But in Trump’s eyes, the fact that McRaven has criticized him means the admiral is an enemy, and must be attacked on every front. It’s not within the president’s DNA to say “I respect his service, but he’s wrong about this.” If you criticize Trump, you can never have done anything right.

It’s for this reason that Trump said about Sen. John McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured.” A normal person can acknowledge McCain’s heroic suffering as a prisoner of war in Vietnam while still disagreeing with him about most things — or even criticizing him vigorously (I certainly did). But not Trump. He has to go after the thing that earned his critic respect in the first place.

This is only the latest of many instances Trump has attacked war heroes, veterans, Gold Star families or others associated with the military in unusually personal terms, a direct violation of the bipartisan norm that demands respect for people in uniform.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

To be clear, you can argue that the boundaries of that norm are sometimes drawn too broadly, as a way of exempting veterans in political life from criticism. For instance, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders once responded to a question concerning false claims that Chief of Staff John F. Kelly had made by saying, “I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate,” which is, of course, ludicrous.

But there is a simple rule anyone can follow: While it is perfectly fine to disagree with anyone, denigrating a veteran’s military service itself is probably out of bounds.

It is possible that Trump chafes at the idea that retired admirals or generals are accorded a special status when criticizing him, receiving attention for their opinions that others might not enjoy. You might even be able to contend that McRaven’s views about press freedom are no more inherently valuable than anyone else’s. But Trump can’t seem to stop himself from taking it that one step further, not just to say “he’s wrong,” but to attack the thing McRaven is best known for in his military career. (As has been pointed out, the special forces that McRaven commanded weren’t charged with finding Bin Laden; that was an intelligence matter. The special forces went in and got bin Laden once he was located.)

This helps explain why Trump’s other actions toward the military have shown none of the special concern he claims to have, and which all presidents have shown. Ahead of the midterm elections, he deployed thousands of troops to the southern border to heighten tension over the phantom threat of a caravan of migrants; those troops are still there, cooling their heels and missing Thanksgiving with their families. He orders an idiotic military parade (which was thankfully canceled), wasting their time and money, for no purpose other than his own aggrandizement. He hasn’t visited any of the deployed troops in war zones anywhere in the world, and when asked why not, he answers that he opposed the war in Iraq.

The proper response to that excuse is of course, “Who the hell cares?” It’s not as though the men and women who are there had any say in the matter, and visiting them is a way of demonstrating that you honor their service. Barack Obama opposed the war but, as president, he made multiple visits to the troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan, as well.

But for Trump, it’s all personal. He regularly refers to “my military” and “my generals” as though they belong not to the country but to him personally. And if they displease him? Then they’re dead to him, and they go right in with all his other enemies as targets for personal destruction.