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Trump signs defense bill but snubs the senator the legislation is named after — John McCain

President Trump delivered remarks Aug. 13, before signing the National Defense Authorization Act at Fort Drum in New York. (Video: Reuters)

FORT DRUM, N.Y. — President Trump on Monday signed a sprawling $716 billion defense bill named for John McCain at a ceremony here, but he made no public mention of the ailing senator who has been among his harshest Republican critics.

In a 25-minute address to troops, Trump praised the U.S. military as the world’s most powerful war-fighting force and took credit for the legislation, which represents a $16 billion increase in authorized funding for the Pentagon over the current year.

But Trump said nothing of McCain (R-Ariz.), a former GOP presidential nominee, Vietnam War hero and POW, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a champion of most of the priorities contained in the legislation. The bill is formally named the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2019.

President Trump said Aug. 13 the National Defense Authorization Act will "increase the size and strength of our military," by adding soldiers, tanks and more. (Video: Reuters)

“Every day, the Army is fighting for us, and now we’re fighting for you,” Trump said, speaking at a hangar in front of hundreds of members of the 10th Mountain Division in camouflage uniforms.

Trump to visit Upstate New York, sign defense bill named for McCain

The overwhelmingly bipartisan spending plan was approved by the Senate in June on an 87-to-10 vote. The 2019 figure is one of the biggest defense budgets in modern American history, despite concerns from some economists and lawmakers about the rising federal deficit.

“America is a peaceful nation, but if conflict is forced upon us, we will fight and we will win,” Trump declared. “You better believe it, generals.”

Trump name-checked four members of Congress who joined him at the event, including Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who represents the district where the base is located. The president said Stefanik had pressed him repeatedly to speak at the base, and he invited her to make brief remarks on stage during the ceremony. Vice President Pence also spoke.

President Trump said "almost four million new jobs" have been created, calling it a number "the media in the back" wouldn't have thought possible in 2016. (Video: Reuters)

McCain, 81, has been mostly absent from the Senate this year as he is undergoing treatment for brain cancer. He has kept up his criticism of the president from his Arizona home, including calling Trump’s performance alongside Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at last month’s summit in Helsinki “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.”

“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” McCain said in a statement issued by his office.

Trump frequently disparages McCain in public, although usually not by name. He has recounted how McCain voted against the Senate Republican plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act 13 months ago. McCain helped kill the GOP bill with a thumbs-down vote.

“He campaigned on repealing and replace. We had all the votes, and perhaps he was grandstanding, who knows what he was doing?” Trump said, referring to McCain during a rally in South Carolina in June. “But you know what? He said, ‘No, no.’ Everybody said, ‘What the hell happened?’ He’s been campaigning for eight years — repeal and replace. And he didn’t do that.”

U.S. defense spending at highest levels since Iraq War

McCain’s friends and supporters reacted angrily to Trump’s snub of the senator.

Former senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a Vietnam veteran and former secretary of state, said in a tweet that Trump’s decision not to mention McCain was “disgraceful,” adding that “nothing will erase for an instant the legacy John McCain has written and is still writing every day.”

McCain’s office declined to comment.

In a statement, McCain hailed the bill as a needed step toward meeting the national security needs outlined by the administration, but made no specific mention of Trump.

“I’m humbled that my colleagues in Congress chose to designate this bill in my name,” he said. “Serving as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and working on behalf of America’s brave service members has been one of the greatest honors of my life. I’m proud that throughout my tenure, the committee has led with a spirit of comity and cooperation to provide for America’s Armed Forces.”

The defense bill seeks to continue reviving beleaguered operations and maintenance units in the military that top generals say suffered from years of congressional budget caps temporarily lifted in February.

Lawmakers say the bill starts the Pentagon down the path toward fulfilling the Trump administration’s national security strategy, which calls on the military to prepare for an era of great-power competition with Russia and China. The lawmakers cite increases in research and development funding for hypersonic missiles, cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence and lasers — technologies that Pentagon planners say will be critical to success in any future confrontation with Moscow or Beijing.

“This measure continues to rebuild and repair our military while making needed reforms in the Pentagon,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “It takes important steps to confront the aggressive behavior of Russia, China, and others.”

But the bill stops short of the radical changes defense analysts say the American military would need to make to prepare for the sort of great-power confrontation the administration outlined in its strategy. The military would have to make tough choices about what activities and technologies to discontinue, which are largely absent from the legislation, according to defense budget analysts.

The administration’s national security strategy came out only after much of this year’s defense bill was already in motion, making it difficult for policymakers to include any more radical changes. Pentagon officials are hoping to make a sharper strategic shift for fiscal 2020.

Yet Mackenzie Eaglen, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says so far the Pentagon’s plans for the 2020 budget look underwhelming.

“It’s difficult to get out of the tyranny of the now, which is counterterrorism,” she said.

The bill Trump signed Monday includes a $639 billion baseline budget for the military that is the nation’s largest in adjusted terms since World War II, according to Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The overall defense budget, which includes the separate warfighting fund the Pentagon draws on for active military operations in addition to baseline expenditures, was higher in the Bush and Obama years during the surge, Harrison said.

In addition to authorizing a 2.6 percent pay raise for service members, the largest such increase in nine years, the legislation adds more flexibility to the way the Pentagon manages the career tracks of officers.

Although the bill authorizes funding for an array of new military hardware — including 77 new F-35 fighter jets to a tune of $7.6 billion — much of the increases in defense dollars go to operations, maintenance and personnel costs, which analysts say will shore up a military beleaguered by nearly 17 years of active warfare but won’t reshape the military strategically.

During his remarks, Trump also boasted about economic growth and touted his administration’s recent announcement of the creation of a “Space Force” that would become a sixth branch of the military.

And the event at times took on the flavor of a political rally, as Trump rekindled his frequent criticism of the press corps, drawing an ovation after suggesting reporters did not fairly entertain his call for manufacturing jobs during the campaign.

“I’m so proud of myself, I didn’t call them the fake news media,” Trump said. “I said to myself, ‘I will not today, in front of the great armed forces, call them fake news.’ We know the real truth, but we won’t say it today.”

Sonne and Nakamura reported from Washington.

Correction: Updated to correct the funding increase for the Pentagon in the bill over the current year.