Like many Republican politicians competing for the nation's highest office, Donald Trump spoke highly of the military during his campaign, promising to treat those serving better than any other candidate would do.
He even boycotted a Fox News debate, claiming that moderator Megyn Kelly had treated him unfairly at a previous debate and instead decided to host an event for veterans. He eventually donated $1 million he pledged during that event to a Marine charity.
His candidacy was well-received by conservatives who thought President Barack Obama had disrespected the armed services while in office. According to a Military Times poll, more than half of troops said they had an unfavorable opinion of Obama and his two terms leading the military.
And despite likening his prep school experience to serving in the military, receiving multiple deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam and controversially denigrating Republican Sen. John McCain's time as a prisoner of war, Trump was generally viewed favorably by those with military experience.
So given how vocal Trump was about his support for the military, his silence after the Oct. 4 ambush in southwestern Niger in which four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed was noticeable. He finally commented on the incident Monday — 12 days after it happened.
Asked by a reporter about his delayed response, Trump said he had written letters over the weekend and would “at some point” call the families of the fallen soldiers. He also said of Obama and other previous presidents that “a lot of them didn't make calls,” an assertion former Obama aides forcefully denied. He did not explain why it had taken so long to publicly acknowledge the incident.
CNN reported over the weekend that Trump was golfing while the remains of La David Johnson, one of the four killed in the attack, were returned to Dover Air Force Base, a juxtaposition critics pounced on.
Trump has praised the military for its service during ceremonies since entering the White House and in speeches, especially when addressing more conservative groups. But some of his comments about the military reveal a habit of seeking to honor soldiers — a group that conservatives deeply respect — by pitting them against groups Republican voters tend to view less favorably. Some examples:
- Trump said in August that he was doing the military a “great favor” by barring transgender people from serving in its ranks.
- In September 2016, Trump said: “Our veterans, in many cases, are being treated worse than illegal immigrants.”
- Trump brought up injured soldiers while criticizing NFL players kneeling during the national anthem last month: “They were fighting for our national anthem,” he said. “For people to disrespect that by kneeling during the playing of our national anthem, I think, is disgraceful.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week that any suggestion that the administration is not taking these deaths seriously is false.
“Obviously,” she said, “any time one of the members of our great military are injured, wounded or killed in action, that is something we take very seriously. … We’re continuing to review and look into this.”
But Trump opponents have expressed frustration with his silence on this issue, where there is no political hay to be made.
And they've pointed out hypocrisy from Republicans, many of whom relentlessly demanded answers from the Obama administration after similar events.
“Republicans were quick to accuse the Obama administration of crafting a faulty political narrative in the aftermath of Benghazi,” wrote Sophia Tesfaye in Salon, referring to the deadly attacks on U.S. facilities in the Libyan city in September 2012. “Fox News told its viewers for years that Obama may have 'sacrificed Americans' as part of a 'political calculation' to win reelection. Now that such an attack has happened on Trump’s watch, where are the specious accusations of a stand-down order?”
Now that Trump has compared himself with Obama on responding to the deaths of the solders, introducing one of his favorite political foils into the mix, we'll see if he has more to say about the casualties on Twitter or elsewhere.