Before Tuesday, the Veterans of Foreign Wars had heard a lot from American presidents. The group’s 1.9 million members and political muscle had drawn every post-World War II president except for one to its national convention. But they had never seen a show quite like President Trump put on for them in Kansas City, Missouri on Tuesday.
For 50 minutes, he treated the delegates almost like attendees at one of his trademark campaign rallies. He gushed about George Brett’s career batting average, reminisced about winning the state of Missouri by almost 20 points in 2016, looked ahead to his 2020 reelection campaign when he would be opposed by “super-lefts” of the Democratic Party, defended his tariffs, patted himself on the back for his North Korean summit, praised the economy, and cast himself as a champion of veterans. He even pulled two surrogates from the audience, summoning them to the dais. One was a 94-year-old veteran of World War II who drew warm applause and charmed the audience.
The other, remarkably, was a Republican candidate for Senate. Even though the event was billed as official by the White House, the president showed no hesitation bringing Missouri’s Republican attorney general, Josh Hawley, to the stage to “just shake my hand.” He then gave him the microphone to laud all things Trump. Hawley, who is running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, was happy to turn on the praise. “How about the leadership of President Donald J. Trump? What do you think?” began Hawley. “When I think about President Trump, there’s one word that comes to mind. That word is 'courage,' do you agree?” Before casting himself as “reinforcements in Washington” for the president, he praised him as someone who “had the guts to actually fulfill his promises.”
It was yet another instance of this president breaking with presidential norms and doing things at events not done by any of his predecessors. All the presidents who preceded him to the VFW convention stage had mostly stuck to their texts and focused more attention on the needs and beliefs of the veterans. Almost all were eager to take advantage of the chance to win over a politically potent group with reach into all 50 states.
President Ford, only 10 days into his presidency in 1974, gave insight into how he was grappling with balancing justice and mercy in considering how to treat those who had evaded the Vietnam draft. Candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980 took advantage of the VFW’s antipathy to President Carter, whose amnesty for those draft resisters led to him not being invited to the convention and prompted the VFW to change its bylaws so they could endorse Reagan against him. Reagan accepted that endorsement and made news by proclaiming the Vietnam War a “noble cause.”
President Clinton was no favorite of the reliably conservative VFW. But in 1999 he sought their help in protecting the budgets of foreign-aid programs. President George W. Bush in both 2007 and 2008 spoke somberly about what he called a “the current ideological struggle” and war against a “new barbarism.” He also warned against Russian aggression against Georgia. In his appearances before the VFW, President Obama sketched out a “new vision of American leadership in the world” and laid out his backing for an opening to Cuba and a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Like his predecessors, Obama saw the convention as an opportunity to mix a focus on uniquely veteran-related issues with a serious discussion of the world situation.
Enter Trump, who long ago established that he will not be bound by such conventions. Already in his still-young presidency, Trump has given a starkly partisan speech to a group of Boy Scouts, been political at the CIA headquarters, and talked politics in a commencement address at a service academy. He also has boasted to active-duty troops he was getting them “big, fat, beautiful tax cuts” and openly asked sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford to “call that congressman and call that senator” to lobby them on legislation.
He didn’t go that far Tuesday. But he offered more stream-of-consciousness musings than a serious policy address. Familiar from his campaign rallies were many of the riffs. Those included a big applause getter, “We stand up for our national anthem.” He boasted of his policies and dismissed criticism of his trade tariffs as a product of a biased news media. “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” he said to applause.
Acknowledging the criticism of his tariffs, he pleaded for patience. “Oh, folks, stick with us. Stick with us.”
He also offered a new take on the criticism from abroad of his decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. “I was inundated from calls of every leader from all over the world, imploring me, even demanding that we not do it,” he recalled. He dealt with it, he said, by ignoring them and refusing to talk to them. “I was getting calls from kings and presidents and dictators. I was getting a call from everyone. And when I knew what it was about, I’d say, ‘Tell them I’ll call them next week.’ Then I called them and I said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you felt that way. Well, it’s too late.’”