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White House discusses possible Trump visit to troops in Iraq or Afghanistan

President Trump, boarding Air Force One on Nov. 17 in Maryland, has declined to visit regions where U.S. troops are deployed, saying he does not want to associate himself with wars he views as failures, according to current and former advisers. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump has begun telling advisers that he may visit troops in a combat zone for the first time in his presidency, as he has come under increasing scrutiny for his treatment of military affairs and failure to visit service members deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Trump has so far declined to visit those combat regions, saying he does not want to associate himself with wars he views as failures, according to current and former advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Current advisers said Trump is not expected to visit a war zone during the Thanksgiving break, which he will spend at his Mar-a-Lago golf resort in Florida.

The president has often cast himself as a champion of the Pentagon, invoking the strength and size of the military at his campaign rallies and on Twitter. At the same time, he has frequently criticized U.S. military missions and decisions while personally attacking some former military leaders, contributing to a complicated relationship with the armed forces he commands.

From the Russia investigation to upcoming Cabinet changes, President Trump’s interview with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” touched on a number of topics. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Although he signed off on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s requests to bolster the American military presence in Afghanistan and Syria and retain the footprint in Iraq, Trump isn’t a fan of U.S. military operations there.

In meetings about a potential visit, he has described the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan as “a total shame,” according to the advisers. He also cited the long flights and potential security risks as reasons he has avoided combat-zone visits, they said.

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Questioned last week about why he has not visited American troops deployed in overseas conflicts, Trump indicated during a Fox News interview that a trip was in the works.

“I think you will see that happen,” Trump said in the interview with Chris Wallace that aired Sunday. “There are things that are being planned. We don’t want to talk about it because of security reasons and everything else.” 

As his repetitions multiply, larger and larger audiences have heard his Four-Pinnochio statement go uncorrected. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The president also repeated his erroneous contention that he was opposed to the Iraq War. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has found that Trump initially expressed support for the invasion and did not register public objections until more than a year after the war began.

“I think it was a tremendous mistake, should never have happened,” Trump told Wallace. 

“But this is about the soldiers, sir,” Wallace responded.

“You’re right,” Trump said. “I don’t think anybody’s been more with the military than I have, as a president. In terms of funding, in terms of all of the things I’ve been able to get them, including the vets.”

Trump has spoken privately about his fears over risks to his own life, according to a former senior White House official, who has discussed the issue with the president and spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about Trump’s concerns. 

“He’s never been interested in going,” the official said of Trump visiting troops in a combat zone, citing conversations with the president. “He’s afraid of those situations. He’s afraid people want to kill him.”

Pressure for Trump to make such a visit has been building for months. Eliot Cohen, a former George W. Bush administration official and Trump critic, has raised the issue regularly in public. 

“The point is American servicemen and women are on the ground in these places,” Cohen said in an interview. “They are getting killed. I think any good leader would want to see something for themselves. And they would want to do something for the troops other than using them as props.”

Since Trump took office, about 60 American service members have died while deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, according to Pentagon statistics, including both “hostile” and “nonhostile” deaths.

Plans for a visit by Trump aren’t firm, several advisers said, and the president has only begun saying in recent weeks that it may need to happen. A White House spokesman declined to comment on presidential visits, citing security concerns.  

The president has come under increasing scrutiny for his behavior toward the military in recent weeks. He attacked the former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, retired Adm. William H. McRaven, on Sunday for his role in catching and killing Osama bin Laden, calling him a supporter of Hillary Clinton and saying that the al-Qaeda leader should have been caught sooner in Pakistan. McRaven responded in a statement saying he did not endorse Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.

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Trump recently skipped a cemetery service marking the end of World War I in France, citing poor weather. He also did not go to Arlington National Cemetery two days later on Veterans Day, later expressing rare regret for missing the occasion.

“I should have done that,” he said in the Fox interview.

Trump has sent thousands of troops to the border with Mexico in anticipation of a Central American migrant caravan in what his critics labeled a preelection stunt designed to shore up anti-immigration sentiment within his base. Mattis has described the mission as good training and necessary support for the Department of Homeland Security.

The history of presidents visiting American troops on active deployments dates back decades and gives presidents a sense of what is happening on the ground — while sending a message to troops that the government at home appreciates their personal sacrifices.

During the Korean War, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pledge to go to Korea helped propel him into the presidency over Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower followed through with a visit in 1952.

Lyndon B. Johnson met with troops at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam in 1966, telling them he had come only to say how proud he was of what they were doing and the way they were doing it. He also visited forces there the next year.

George H.W. Bush spent Thanksgiving with American troops in Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield in 1990 and New Year’s with troops in Somalia in 1993. His successor, Bill Clinton, visited troops in Bosnia in 1996 and spent Thanksgiving with troops in Kosovo in 1999.

George W. Bush made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to troops in Iraq months after the invasion in 2003 and went to the country three additional times after that while president. At the time, the U.S. military footprint in the country was building, ultimately numbering about 170,000 troops in Iraq at the peak of a surge in 2007.

Mark Hertling, a retired three-star general, helped organize the surprise visit in 2003.

About six officers knew Bush was coming, he said, recounting how the president flew into the international airport in the wee hours of the morning and stayed hidden until the troops were in a large mess hall. Bush later served turkey and received resounding applause.

“The troops in the field need to know their efforts are not being wasted,” Hertling said. “It shows [that] the government and the people have their back.”

The troop presence in Afghanistan grew during the first half of the Obama administration, reaching a peak of about 100,000 in 2011. President Barack Obama visited the country four times as president, most recently in 2014, and made one trip to Iraq shortly after his first inauguration, meeting with American forces each time. He had previously visited the combat zones in both countries as a U.S. senator.

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Trump’s advisers say his lack of a visit does not represent a lack of interest in or disrespect for the military. There are military figures in his administration that he admires, his advisers say: Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the Army, and retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, a former White House adviser who now works for Vice President Pence.

The president was persuaded to sign a spending bill that he did not like by aides who brought him lists of military equipment the money would buy — even down to the specific planes and ships, current and former White House aides said. 

Trump frequently touts the strength of the U.S. military at his political rallies, having signed off on a $716 billion budget for the Pentagon this year that included the largest base budget in adjusted terms since World War II.

Current and former aides said Trump is somber when making military decisions and has expressed concern about troops dying on his watch. They also note that Trump has visited domestic military bases and visited troops while overseas, such as a stop in Japan last fall, while also bringing military visitors into the Oval Office. 

“I have never heard him show any sort of disrespect toward the military in private,” said one former senior administration official. “Any time you go anywhere with him in the military, he is overwhelmingly popular.”

According to current and former aides, Trump was shaken after visiting Dover Air Force Base shortly after his inauguration to receive the remains of a Navy SEAL killed in Yemen, his first trip to meet a grieving family. He has not returned since. 

The president, who attacked a Gold Star family on the campaign trail in 2016, has shown little interest in some of the minutiae of the military and regularly complains about the headaches involved in its entanglements around the world, aides said. 

For most of Trump’s tenure, a trip to Iraq or Afghanistan would have carried real security challenges and political complications, U.S. officials said.

Iraq was heading into elections during the president’s first year in office, and a visit by Trump around the time of the controversy over Trump’s travel ban affecting Muslim-majority countries could have further complicated efforts by the U.S.-backed prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to secure reelection in May.

In Afghanistan, the security situation has deteriorated. In September 2017, Mattis was the target of a failed rocket attack at Kabul airport. A month later, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a secret visit to Afghanistan but didn’t leave Bagram air base, in part owing to security concerns.

Still, if the president wanted to visit American troops deployed to one of the countries, U.S. military officials would find a way to organize the trip as they have done in the past, according to officials familiar with the matter. He could easily stop at Bagram for a few hours as Tillerson did, they said.

Hertling said he remembered a visit by the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) to Iraq in the worst days of the conflict, and McCain wanted to go to Mosul despite heavy fighting. The military blanched. 

“We wanted to take him anywhere but Mosul,” Hertling said. “He found out about it and wanted to go there. So we went.” 

Philip Rucker contributed to this report.