President Trump’s avoidance of the war in Vietnam is neither new nor unique. Each of the two baby-boomer presidents who preceded him — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — worked the system to keep from having to fight in a war that quickly became seen as, at best, a horrible mistake. But Trump’s success at avoiding the draft is remarkable in part because of the contrast that can be drawn between his rhetoric on the military and veterans and the way in which he managed to avoid service — an effort that a new report from the New York Times helps flesh out in fuller detail.
It seems that two favors, two years apart, made almost all of the difference.
Donald John Trump was born June 14, 1946. When the Vietnam draft lottery began in 1970, he was 24 and out of college, seemingly positioned to be quickly added to the ranks of those being shipped to the expanding conflict. But that didn’t happen.
In an interview with “Meet the Press” in 1999, Trump told host Tim Russert how he managed not to be drafted.
“Well, I got very lucky,” Trump said. “We had lottery numbers. And I guess this was my biggest factor of luck in my life, because during the Vietnam War, I had a very, very high — my date, which was June 14th, was a very high date in the lottery, so I never got drafted, so I was very lucky.”
That, as you probably know, isn't the whole story.
The draft was operated by the Selective Service System, which mandated (and still mandates) that young men register with the government after their 18th birthday. Trump did so on June 24, 1964, indicating that he was a student at Fordham University in the Bronx.
As a result, on July 28, 1964, he received the Selective Service classification 2-S, meaning that he was deferred from inclusion in a draft because he was a student. On Dec. 14, 1965, this classification was renewed.
This was not insignificant: President Lyndon Johnson was expanding the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia, and, in December 1965, the draft quota was 40,200, according to the book “The Draft, 1940-1973.” The Select Service began considering scaling back student deferments.
That book explains how draft boards identified recruits before the lottery system Trump described to Russert.
"As the supply of young, single graduates ran out, local boards moved relentlessly toward childless married men, then to college dropouts, and finally to 1-Y types” — people to be drafted only in exceptional circumstances, author George Flynn writes. “By the summer of 1966 the draft used the following sequence in descending order, to call men: delinquents, oldest first; volunteers up to age 26; single and married since 26 August 1965, 19 to 26 with oldest called first; men over 26, youngest first; finally men 18.5 to 19 with the oldest called first."
In the spring of 1966, Trump left Fordham. On Nov. 22, 1966, he was reclassified as 1-A: available for service. But in short order, he had enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, thanks in part to “an interview with a friendly Wharton admissions officer who was one of [his father’s] old high school classmates,” according to Gwenda Blair’s book “The Trumps.” Favor No. 1.
By Dec. 13, 1966, he was once again 2-S. In January 1968, that classification was renewed.
By the end of 1968, there were more than 500,000 U.S. troops engaged in the conflict in Vietnam. That was also the year that Trump graduated from Wharton, putting him at risk of being drafted. On July 9, 1968, Trump was again reclassified as 1-A.
Three months later, though, a stroke of good luck: Trump was reclassified as 1-Y — qualified for service only in the event of war or national emergency. It was a medical deferment, offered to Trump because of bone spurs on his heels.
This diagnosis has long raised eyebrows, given Trump’s athleticism in high school and his past claims that he was scouted by the Philadelphia Phillies.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump said he couldn’t remember which heel might have been affected, exactly, but told the Times that he’d gotten “a very strong letter on the heels” from a doctor whose name he didn’t remember. He told a biographer, the Times now reports, that he “didn’t have power” at that point that would have earned him a phony medical diagnosis.
But the new Times report suggests that the diagnosis may have been offered by a podiatrist who rented office space from Trump’s father, Fred Trump, and who reportedly told his children that he’d been able to do the Trumps a favor. (“Did he examine [Trump]? I don’t know,” one of the podiatrist’s daughters told the Times' Steve Eder.) Favor No. 2.
That reclassification essentially ended the risk posed to Trump by the draft. In December 1969, there was a televised national lottery in which the government selected dates at random to determine the order in which young men were drafted. Those born on Sept. 14 between 1944 and 1950 were the first to be drafted. Those born on June 14, like Trump, were indeed lucky, with that date selected 356th. That was good news for Trump: Within the day itself, the order in which men were selected was based on the initials of their first, middle and last names. “D,” “J” and “T” were all fairly high in that order.
But again, this was moot for Trump. When the 1-Y classification was abolished in late 1971, Trump was reclassified as 4-F, rejected from service for physical reasons.
In Selective Service documents obtained by the Times, the risk of being classified 1-A is immediately obvious. On the same sheet as Trump is a young man named Joel Warshawsky, from a neighborhood in Queens near where Trump grew up. Warshawsky was born a week after Trump and was classified 1-A in 1964 and 1965. He was enlisted or drafted into the Marines. In September 1967, he was killed in a friendly-fire incident in Quang Nam Province in what was then South Vietnam.
Trump’s record rose to national attention again in 2015, after he disparaged the military service of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Shortly after claiming that the Vietnam War veteran wasn’t a hero, he was interviewed by the radio host Don Imus.
IMUS: [A] guy who got three or four deferments to keep from going to Vietnam probably shouldn’t be characterizing people like John McCain as anything, do you think?
TRUMP: I understand that. Well, I had . . . I was going to college, I had student deferments. . . . I also got a great lottery number, Don, which frankly I got. I think I was 356, which is out of . . . I guess — I don’t know what the final number was, but it was like one of the low numbers.
To demonstrate his respect for veterans of the Vietnam War (which he called a “big, big mistake, a horrible mistake just like Iraq was a mistake”), he pointed to his work helping construct a Vietnam War veterans memorial in New York. Of the $2.5 million raised for that memorial, Trump contributed $1 million. He was honored by the organization in 2008.
“You know, one of the reasons I was very much involved in building the Vietnam memorial in New York, as you know, you probably remember — and to this day, I mean, everybody — people that fought in Vietnam are always thanking me for that,” Trump told Imus. “But I did that because I really wanted to do something. You know, I wanted to do something.”
Again, he gave credit to the draft lottery.
“But I did, I had student deferments,” he said. “I had a good draft number, and, you know, so, frankly, I’m very — you know, I feel fine about it.”
That podiatrist in Queens wasn’t mentioned.