President Trump paid his first visit to the Pentagon as commander-in-chief on Friday, signing executive actions subjecting potential immigrants to greater scrutiny and seeking to enhance American military power.
Appearing at the Pentagon’s Hall of Heroes, which honors military personnel who have received the Medal of Honor, Trump held up an order he said would establish new measures designed to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” from entering the United States. “We don’t want them here,” he said, flanked by Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary James Mattis. “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.”
The text of the orders was not immediately available. A draft of one executive order obtained this week by The Washington Post, in keeping with Trump’s campaign promises to subject immigrants to “extreme vetting,” laid out plans for a temporary ban on the entry of people from certain countries, many of them majority Muslim. It also ordered a temporary halt to refugee admission, prompting an outcry from civil rights groups. Some advocates have said the measures, if implemented, would amount to a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Trump said in remarks before a crowd of current and retired defense officials that he was also signing an order that would “begin a great rebuilding of the armed services of the United States,” including plans for new aircraft, ships and other military equipment.
The incoming administration has already signaled its intent to restore defense funding and improve military capabilities following a period of declining budgets and shrinking ranks.
In another draft executive order obtained this week, the White House instructed Mattis to conduct a 30-day review of military readiness and lay plans for ensuring the United States can meet a host of challenges, not only such terrorist groups as the Islamic State but also “near-peer” nations that could include Russia and China. It also signaled a desire to invest in a host of military capabilities, including Special Operations forces and nuclear weapons.
It was not immediately clear if the draft orders made public this week were the same ones signed by Trump on Friday.
In his first week in office, Trump has created anxiety among allies by staking out positions in favor of waterboarding, insisting that North American Free Trade Agreement partner Mexico will pay for a wall along the U.S. border and laying out a number of controversial executive orders.
His first official interaction with senior military leaders suggested he will attempt to follow through on promises to grow U.S. defenses, boost military spending, and restore personnel cut in recent years. But it provided few clues about how a leader with little national security experience will approach fraught issues including the potential for conflict with nations like China and North Korea and decisions on when to risk American lives overseas.
After a visit of about 90 minutes that included a meeting with senior uniformed officials, Trump said that the Hall of Heroes, one of the Pentagon’s most solemn spaces, was a “testament to the undying courage” of U.S. service members. Appearing to read from prepared remarks, Trump spoke in noticeably more somber tones than he did in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall last weekend. The new president was criticized by some former officials for failing to show adequate gravity during that event.
“I am privileged to be here with you and I promise that our administration will always have your back,” Trump said, addressing U.S. service members. “We will always be with you.”
In his remarks, Trump repeatedly praised Mattis, a retired Marine officer with a long combat record who Trump called “a general’s general.” Already, Mattis has already suggested he may differ with his commander-in-chief on key issues such as the importance of the NATO alliance.
Earlier in the day, speaking alongside visiting British Prime Minister Theresa May, Trump suggested he would defer to Mattis on treatment of detainees. Trump has said he favors waterboarding, while Mattis does not. “I don’t necessarily agree, but I would tell you that [Mattis] will override because I’m giving him that power,” Trump said of harsh interrogation methods.
Trump, who has tapped a number of prominent former generals to lead his national security team, has also promised to aggressively combat militant groups as part of his drive to exterminate “radical Islamism.”
Trump takes command as U.S. advisers support local troops battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, U.S. military personnel have coached Iraqi commanders as they oversee a push through the city of Mosul, seized by militants more than two years ago. In Syria, a small force of Special Operations troops are working with a Kurdish-led force laying the groundwork for an assault on Raqqa, another Islamic State stronghold.
Military officials have been developing options that the incoming administration might support in the campaign against the Islamic State. Those could include the authority to place U.S. troops even closer to the front lines in Iraq, increased forces for Syria and greater authority for military commanders to expand the way U.S. forces are used without going to the White House for approval.
A defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions, said Trump’s meeting with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior officials lasted roughly an hour. Trump was accompanied by his national security adviser, retired Gen. Mike Flynn, and the meeting covered a broad array of topics, including the role of the national guard and the responsibilities of the combatant commands, the official said.
Officials agreed on the need to accelerate progress against the Islamic State, though it was unclear if a timeline or specifics were addressed. While North Korea and other threats were discussed, the official declined to say if Russia was another topic.
In a statement issued after Trump’s visit, Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Mattis shared “the president’s goal of ensuring our military leaders have the support they need to accelerate the campaign against [the Islamic State], and to build combat readiness now and for the future.”
John Wagner and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.