President Trump has an uncanny knack for making a mess of simple, traditional functions every other president has managed to carry out with ease. Talk to a child about Christmas? Yikes — a “marginal” disaster. Go to Europe to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I? He skips one event rather than wilt in the rain and sulks through another. The worst anti-Semitic massacre in U.S. history? He whines about getting his hair wet and keeps campaigning. Visit the troops (finally) in Iraq? Oh boy.
Trump has the obnoxious habit of using American military personnel as props, an audience for highly partisan attacks. Every other person to hold the office has understood that the military must be beyond politics; the apolitical military is a critical difference between Western democracies and thuggish regimes. Worst of all, Trump deployed the troops at the border in pre-election stunt to rile up his xenophobic base. (He has even managed to insult the leader of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the highly esteemed retired Adm. William H. McRaven.)
As retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, a former spokesman for both the Defense and State departments, put it in November: “The United States military is not a voting bloc. It’s not a MAGA rally crowd. It’s not a plaything, and it’s most certainly not an arm of the Republican Party. Our troops, of course, must obey the orders of the commander in chief. They execute the military policy he sets forth. But their loyalty belongs to the American people and to the Constitution.”
So on his belated, first visit to a war zone, Trump once more flubbed a routine presidential task, politicizing his speech (complete with partisan attacks on Democrats on his favorite topic, the border) and even signing “Make America Great Again” hats for the troops, despite regulations prohibiting military personnel from engaging in political events. (“Per longstanding DoD policy, active duty personnel may not engage in partisan political activities and all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause. Members on active duty may not campaign for a partisan candidate, engage in partisan fundraising activities, serve as an officer of a partisan club, or speak before a partisan gathering.”)
To make matters worse, he lied to the military men and women in attendance about the raise they received. ABC News reports:
“Is anybody here willing to give up the big pay raise you just got?” he surveyed the crowd. “Raise your hand please. Oh, I don’t see too many hands.”
He continued, citing numbers that have since been debunked and declared untrue.
"You haven’t gotten [a raise] in more than ten years," he said. "And we got you a big one. I got you a big one."
As the independent fact-checking site PolitiFact noted, the military has received a routine pay raise every year since at least 1961. The 2.4 percent increase that went into effect in 2018 was the largest since 2010, but they have continued apace every year.
Trump then falsely asserted that the pay increase was actually 10 percent, recounting phony conversations in which “plenty of people” tried to impose a smaller raise.
Trump also repeated his familiar charge that we are “suckers” for deploying the very people he was addressing in so many locations. That’s a real morale booster. He also told them he was in no hurry to pick a permanent defense secretary, their civilian leader, after firing the beloved Jim Mattis. And to top it off, he seemed to sneer at his military advisers in recounting how he ignored their advice regarding an immediate pullout from Syria.
All in all, it was the most cringe-worthy presidential visit to the troops in memory, a reminder that while Trump loves to talk about “his generals” and wrap himself in military pomp, he has never learned the basics of military culture and decorum, nor shown any understanding of the military ethic exemplified by career military men such as Mattis.
As in all things, the military for Trump is all about him; hence, his performances come across as tone-deaf and ham-handed, lacking the dignity and high-mindedness appropriate for such occasions. Leave it to Trump to make a visit to the troops look like a crass political campaign rally. He manages to defile just about every institution he touches.
Trump’s blunders will increase and become more serious as the last vestiges of adult supervision (Mattis, John Kelly) depart the administration. Democrats, especially veterans of the military and intelligence community who now serve in Congress, would be wise to tackle Trump’s abuse and misuse of our military. Someone needs to defend the reputation and honor of the military.