For a speech in North Carolina on Thursday evening, Donald Trump asked seven Medal of Honor recipients to sit behind him. (He'd spoken in front of Medal of Honor recipients before, but last time their presence was lost in the main news of the event, held shortly before the first debate: Trump admitting that President Obama was born in the United States.)
“Oh, they're so much more brave than me,” Trump said of the men Thursday. “I wouldn't have done what they did.”
Not that Trump wasn't bold in his own way, of course.
“I'm brave in other ways. I'm brave — I'm financially brave,” he added. “Big deal, right? These are real brave.”
Trump makes jokes sometimes; this was one of them. But there's a recurring theme to Trump's comments about the military: guilt.
He's made similar comments about his financial bravery in the past. In 1995, he told the New York Daily News that he was “a financial warrior. I don't have the guts to do this stuff.” Then, as now, the context was the service of others: He was promoting a Veterans Day parade for which he was serving as grand marshal.
At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last December, Trump said explicitly that his charitable efforts were meant to compensate for not having served in the military.
“I didn’t serve, I haven’t served,” he said at the time. “I always felt a little guilty. I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve built the Vietnam Memorial in New York. … It’s a way of making up.”
Washington Post reporting subsequently uncovered that Trump's charitable giving to veterans' causes was nearly nonexistent, including that a $1 million pledge he made very publicly at a campaign event was left unfulfilled until he was pressed on it.
Trump attended high school at the New York Military Academy in the Hudson River Valley. He was a star athlete there, and the daily routine included military-style drills and uniforms. As The Post reported earlier this year, Trump said that the experience probably gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.”
Trump didn't go into the military himself. He received multiple deferments that kept him out of the Vietnam War. Several were predicated on apparent bone spurs in his heels. (The New York Times notes that Trump was asked last year which heel was affected; he couldn't remember.)
In an interview with Howard Stern in 1993, Trump jokingly claimed to have known the struggle experienced by military veterans his age: “You know, if you’re young, and in this era, and if you have any guilt about not having gone to Vietnam. We have our own Vietnam. It’s called the dating game.”
Trump has made a focus on veterans' issues a key part of his campaign since he disparaged the service of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) shortly after he announced his candidacy.
Veterans — a group that overlaps heavily with Trump's core base of support, white men without college degrees — have embraced Trump. At a rally in August, a veteran gave Trump a replica of his purple heart.
“I said, 'Man, that's big stuff,'" Trump told the audience, while relaying what happened. “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.”
At the time, Trump was trying to recover from a very high-profile fight related to military service: his feud with Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq. At the Democratic National Convention, Khan sharply criticized Trump, saying he'd sacrificed “nothing and no one” for his country.
“I think I've made a lot of sacrifices,” he told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. “I work very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I've had tremendous success. I think I've done a lot.”
You might go so far as to call this “financial bravery.”