Analysis

Trump's Mixed Messages on the Military

Though he has praised the armed forces, the president has also clashed repeatedly with generals, ignored advice from the Pentagon, and violated long-standing traditions.

President Trump speaks at a hangar at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Dec. 26.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Jan. 10, 2019, 8 p.m.

There may be no group with a more contradictory relationship to President Trump than the military. He routinely—and usually in all uppercase—describes it as “OUR GREAT MILITARY.” He views the troops as part of his political base. And he initially surrounded himself with four generals in the upper reaches of his administration.

But he also has fired or pushed out all those generals and squabbled with others. Plus, he just as routinely has insulted, snubbed, ignored, misled, or acted inappropriately toward military leaders, families, and troops. The first instances came in the 2016 campaign when Trump insisted, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” said the generals “don’t know much because they’re not winning,” and stated, “They have been reduced to rubble” to “a point where it’s embarrassing to our country.” He also attacked the Gold Star parents of a slain soldier after they criticized him. As president, he has continued to praise “the military” but criticize generals and shatter long-accepted norms involving the troops and politics. Here are 15 examples:

Ignoring and then firing James Mattis.

Trump grew disillusioned when his new Defense secretary didn’t live up to his “Mad Dog” nickname as a general and kept stressing the importance of U.S. allies. In October, Trump dismissed Mattis as “sort of a Democrat” and said he knew more about NATO than Mattis did. In December, he triggered the secretary's resignation with his abrupt decision to pull out of Syria. Angered by the bad publicity surrounding the resignation, Trump then forced him out two months early.

Shutting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs out of the Syria decision.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was not invited to the meeting where Trump decided to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

Delaying visiting a war zone.

As criticism mounted at the president’s failure to visit troops in a war zone, Trump defensively told the Associated Press in October that “we’ve just been very busy.” Other reports said he was afraid to go into harm’s way. When he finally went to Iraq in December, he talked a lot about the dangers he was facing.

Giving political speeches to troops.

Trump refuses to accept the long-held norm that presidents do not drag troops into politics. He has asked them to lobby on taxes, criticized migrants, mocked Democrats, and asked them to help celebrate his victories. “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” he exulted at an Air Force base in 2017. “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”

Sending troops to the border during a campaign.

Declaring a crisis just as he was trying to use illegal immigration as an issue in the midterm campaigns, Trump in October sent 5,200 troops to the southern border to guard against a caravan of migrants. It was widely condemned as an attempt to use troops as political pawns.

Dismissing the importance of troops being home for Thanksgiving.

When asked about the troops who would be spending Thanksgiving in tents at the southern border and away from their families, Trump was dismissive. “Don’t worry about the Thanksgiving,” he said. “These are tough people.”

Blaming the generals for the death of a SEAL.

Facing the first American military casualty of his presidency, the commander in chief shunned all responsibility for the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens in Yemen. He said the generals started the planning “before I got here” and, he added, “They lost Ryan.”

Threatening to make the military build his border wall.

Faced with congressional opposition, Trump in December suggested he can order the military to build the wall.

Mishandling a condolence call to a widow.

When a Green Beret was killed on a mission in Niger, Trump reportedly told his pregnant widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”

Canceling joint military exercises with South Korea without consulting Pentagon.

When Trump met North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in June, he impulsively agreed to cancel the annual joint military exercises with South Korea, with no advance consultation with either the Pentagon or South Korea.

Attacking generals and admirals.

In November, Trump mocked retired Adm. William McRaven for his role in bringing justice to Osama bin Laden, dismissing him as a “Hillary Clinton fan” who was too slow to get the al-Qaida leader. When retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal criticized these attacks, Trump lashed back, calling him a “dog” with a “big, dumb mouth” and a “Hillary lover.”

Ignoring the Pentagon on the Space Force.

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said nobody at the top reaches of the Pentagon supports Trump’s creation of a Space Force. Trump ignored them.

Ignoring the Pentagon on transgender troops.

Trump ignored “my generals” and the Pentagon and surprised them in 2017 when he announced by tweet he was banning transgender people from serving in the military.

Continuing fight with McCain even after his death.

After calling Sen. John McCain “not a war hero” during the campaign, Trump continued his attacks on the former POW even after his death, refusing to issue a statement and only belatedly and reluctantly agreeing to order flags lowered.

Continually misleading troops about their pay.

No matter how many times fact-checkers correct him or newspapers run charts showing all the military pay raises over the last decade, the president continues to mislead troops about their own pay. He even, strangely, tries to kid them about their paychecks, often asking them if they want to give up their raise. (It never gets a laugh.) “You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years,” he told troops in Iraq. “More than 10 years. And we got you a big one.” In fact, their pay has been raised every year for three decades. He also insisted that he had made it a 10 percent raise, when it actually is 2.6 percent for 2019.

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