President Trump is a man who holds very little sacred, especially when it comes to politics. But even by his standards, his comments about his Vietnam deferments are remarkably flippant.
In a new interview with Piers Morgan, Trump said he thinks he’s compensating for his lack of service in the Vietnam War — an avoidance aided by a suspicious medical deferment — by increasing U.S. defense spending.
“I would have been honored” to serve, Trump said, “but I think I make up for that right now. Look, $700 billion I gave last year, and this year $716 billion. And I think I’m making up for it rapidly, because we’re rebuilding our military at a level it’s never seen before.”
Trump’s deferment is actually a topic he has largely been able to avoid, despite a series of developments calling into question whether his bone-spurs diagnosis was legitimate and whether he has been truthful about the situation.
When Trump has talked about this, he has often done so by likening his own experiences to Vietnam or suggesting that he has made similar sacrifices as the soldiers who fought in the jungles there.
After Gold Star father Khizr Khan suggested at the Democratic National Convention that Trump had never sacrificed anything for his country, Trump suggested he had, in fact, done so, by building a business.
“I think I have made a lot of sacrifices,” Trump told ABC News. “I’ve worked very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures.”
When ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pressed him on whether that was really sacrifice, Trump doubled down.
“Oh, sure. I think they’re sacrifices,” he said. “I think when I can employ thousands and thousands of people, take care of their education, take care of so many things. Even in the military, I mean, I was responsible along with a group of people for getting the Vietnam Memorial built in downtown Manhattan, which to this day people thank me for.”
Before the 2016 campaign, Trump occasionally talked about Vietnam with radio host Howard Stern, who often joked about his own imaginary exploits in the war. In two separate interviews during the 1990s, Trump compared trying to avoid sexually transmitted diseases on the dating scene to “my personal Vietnam."
“It’s pretty dangerous out there,” he said in 1993. “It’s like Vietnam.”
He added in 1996: “I feel like a very great and very brave soldier."
Trump echoed these exchanges in a 2004 interview with Playboy. “I tell my sons just to get a nice girlfriend and be happy, because it’s dangerous out there,” he said. “It’s Vietnam.”
During another appearance on Stern’s show, in 1995, Trump congratulated a member of Stern’s team, Jackie Martling, for supposedly avoiding the war via a dodgy medical diagnosis:
TRUMP: But, you know, during the Vietnam War, I got very lucky. I had a very high lottery number.
STERN: Yes, you and Jackie the Joke Man.
TRUMP: Jackie, did [you] get lucky also?
STERN: Jackie actually convinced the doctor that he had a bad knee. I love that.
TRUMP: Well, that was a good job, Jackie.
Trump made no mention in this interview of his own medical deferment — which was his fifth, after four student deferments. And indeed, as Trump talked about this issue over the years, he repeatedly suggested he avoided service due to a high lottery number and occasionally noted the student deferments.
But all of that has since come into question. The New York Times reported in August 2016 that Trump had received the bone-spurs diagnosis and that his claims that he was saved by a high lottery number didn’t make sense. By last year, the Times spoke with the daughters of the podiatrist who rented his office from Trump’s father, Fred Trump, who said their father provided the bone-spurs diagnosis as a favor to their landlord — and that he suggested it wasn’t legitimate.
Trump hasn’t really weighed in on these stories since the initial 2016 New York Times report, in which he suggested he had paperwork he could share with the newspaper but then never provided. (Trump also said the condition was very temporary and that he couldn’t remember which heel he had the spurs in. His campaign later said it was both heels.) Part of the reason for that could be that the evidence is tenuous and that other recent presidents have dealt with their own deferment questions — including, in Bill Clinton’s case, a very controversial one.
But two Democratic presidential candidates who served in war, Pete Buttigieg and Seth Moulton, are beginning to use the issue in their campaigns. And as Trump campaigns for reelection and answers more questions, it may not be so easy to avoid.
If nothing else, it may tempt him to offer more comments and comparisons of questionable taste.