On the eve of Donald Trump's first major foreign-policy speech, I dove into the national security world to better understand how the men and women in uniform, the spies and the bureaucrats, the four-stars and the reservists view our political man of the moment. Let's just say anxiety would be a gross understatement. Here, the military confronts the thought of Commander-in-Chief Donald J. Trump.
Trump at War
How the military is preparing for the possibility of a very different kind of Commander in Chief.
Huffington Post Highline | April 25, 2016
When Donald Trump launched his bid for the White House, one of his earliest initiatives was a promise to help Americans who had gone to war for their country. Or, as his campaign put it, to take care of “all Veteran complaints very quickly and efficiently like a world-class business man can do, but a politician has no clue.” Last summer, about a month after declaring his candidacy, Trump unveiled a hotline for veterans to share ideas about how to overhaul the bureaucracy that served them. A campaign aide said that Trump himself would personally respond to some of the messages. “I love all veterans and will help them finally lead the kind of lives that they should be leading,” Trump declared at the time.
Many of the veterans who called the hotline—855-VETS-352—say they were sent to an automated voicemail message telling them to email the campaign. Those who reached a live human were similarly instructed to send an email, or to mail their medical records to campaign headquarters at Trump Tower. It soon became evident that Trump had no actual plan in place to help anyone who contacted him through the hotline. Calling it a “publicity stunt,” one veteran wrote on PopularMilitary.com, “We are not sure what the estimated wait time is, but it is probably safe to say you should hold on to your [Veterans Affairs] card for now.”
This perfunctory effort was perhaps to be expected, since Trump has a long and colorful history of showing disrespect toward men and women in uniform. He did not serve himself, avoiding the Vietnam War via four education deferments, followed by a medical deferment for bone spurs in his feet. (His campaign notes that Trump received a high number in the draft lottery and was unlikely to ever be called up.) But on numerous occasions, he has dismissed the experiences of those who did. In the 2015 biography Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, Trump is quoted as saying, “I always thought I was in the military” because of his time at the New York Military Academy, an expensive boarding school 60 miles north of New York City where Trump brought women onto campus so often that his yearbook nickname was “Ladies’ Man.” The author, Michael D’Antonio, writes that Trump believed the academy “provided him with more military training than most actual soldiers.”
In the 1990s, Trump made headlines for lobbying the New York State legislature to ban disabled veterans from working as street vendors around Trump Tower. “Do we allow Fifth Avenue, one of the world’s finest and most luxurious shopping districts, to be turned into an outdoor flea market, clogging and seriously downgrading the area?” he wrote to a state assemblyman. Thirteen years later, he appealed again to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Whether they are veterans or not,” he wrote, “[the vendors] should not be allowed to sell on this most important and prestigious shopping street.”
At times, his remarks on veterans and military service have veered into outright mockery. In a 1997 interview with Howard Stern, Trump likened his determination to avoid sexually transmitted infections to serving in combat. His sex life in the 1980s was “my personal Vietnam,” he said. “I feel like a great and very brave soldier.” Last summer, he declared that Senator John McCain—a former Navy pilot who was held prisoner for five and a half years and tortured by the North Vietnamese—was “not a war hero.” His reasoning: “I like people that weren’t captured.”
Meanwhile, when Trump has weighed in on national security questions, his remarks often reveal either ignorance or disdain for military expertise and the codes of conduct that govern the armed forces. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me,” he boasted in one speech, adding, "I’ve had a lot of wars of my own. I’m really good at war." His foreign policy prescriptions include proposals to “bomb the shit out of ISIS,” to “take out” the families of ISIS members and to torture terrorism suspects. (“Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would,” he told one crowd. “And you know what? If it doesn't work, they deserve it anyway, for what they're doing.”) When it was pointed out that soldiers couldn’t legally carry out those last two actions, Trump was unconcerned. "They're not going to refuse me. Believe me.” (He walked back that last statement the next day.) The Geneva Conventions, he recently observed, have made American soldiers “afraid to fight.”
Trump’s pronouncements on foreign policy, combined with his years of broadsides, have set off a very real fear within military circles about what might happen were he to become president. In the last two months, I spoke with dozens of people in the national security realm—current and retired officers, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and former White House, State Department, Pentagon and CIA officials. The words they used to describe their mood: Terrified. Shocked. Appalled. Never before, they say, has a candidate gotten so close to the White House with such little respect for the military.