A closer look at Donald Trump’s record on military, veterans

President Donald Trump visits with Marines at Marine Barracks Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump visits with Marines at Marine Barracks Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In a recent interview with Fox News, President Donald Trump said his administration has delivered for troops and veterans.

"I don't think anybody's been more with the military than I have, as a president," he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace. "In terms of funding, in terms of all of the things I've been able to get them, including the vets. I don't think anybody's done more than me."

Since the early days of the 2016 campaign, Trump has made the U.S. military central to his political ambitions.

Veterans voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a nearly 2-1 margin, and polling shows active duty military members have a more favorable view of Trump than does the American public at large, though his support among service members has softened recently.

With the president’s record on the military in the headlines recently, we wanted to take a closer look to see the extent to which Trump’s rhetoric about troops and veterans matches reality, in both symbolism and substance.

Criticized commander of Osama bin Laden raid

Trump raised eyebrows when he suggested the former commander who oversaw the successful Navy Seal raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan is a political partisan.

Retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, who commanded the Joint Special Operations Command during the bin Laden raid, said last year that Trump’s repeated attack on the media — which the president has repeatedly called "the enemy of the people" — is the "greatest threat to democracy" McRaven had ever seen.

McRaven did not endorse a candidate for president in 2016. A hacked email showed Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta discussed McRaven as a possible running mate.

Hearing McRaven’s name, Trump interrupted Wallace mid-sentence.

"Hillary Clinton fan," Trump said. A short time later he added, "OK, he's a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer."

(In response, McRaven later issued a statement to CNN doubling down on his criticism of Trump and adding, "I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else. I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for.")

Trump also suggested special operations forces took longer than necessary to capture or kill the al Qaeda leader who masterminded the 9/11 attack.

"Wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that," Trump said. "Wouldn't it have been nice?"

As we noted in a previous fact-check, Trump has misleadingly claimed he called for rubbing out bin Laden in 2000, an assertion he floated again after his Fox News interview.

Trump has not shied away from sparring with other members of the military community.

During the campaign, he questioned the heroism of late Sen. John McCain, who suffered torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors while refusing an early release from imprisonment.

Trump also feuded with a Gold Star family whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in action in 2004 while serving in Iraq.

Defense spending

Trump told Fox News "I don't think anybody's done more than me," in terms of funding the military. This needs more context.

In August, Trump signed a $716 billion defense spending bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2019.

That figure comprises $639 billion for the Pentagon’s baseline budget — which excludes funding for overseas military operations. That’s the largest baseline budget, in adjusted terms, since World War II.

But the high figure is in part because the budget was already at a relatively high level by historical standards when Trump took office, said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

When funding for the Defense Department’s operations plus war spending are added up, $716 billion is not a historic high, even compared to recent presidents.

The total defense budget was higher during much of the Obama administration. For instance, without adjusting for inflation, Obama signed a $726 billion defense spending bill for fiscal year 2011.

There were also larger percentage increases during the Bush years, particularly after 9/11. As we’ve noted in previous fact-checks, Trump has made false and misleading claims about the scale of the military spending increases during his presidency, as well as military pay raises.

The size of the military has not changed much since Trump took office, Harrison said.

"This is one of the ironic things about the defense budget right now: The overall level of funding is near the highest it has been in inflation-adjusted dollars since the end of WWII," Harrison said, "but the size of the military is near the smallest it has been since the end of WWII."

Trump has also touted his policy wins for vets.

On veterans’ care, Trump has repeatedly claimed that after 44 years of trying to pass the Veterans Choice program, "I got it approved."

As we’ve noted in previous fact-checks, Trump is wrong that Veterans Choice wasn’t passed until he came into office.

Congress did pass a new version of a Choice program in June 2018 — but the program itself has been around since 2014.

After the scandal of long waits and the efforts of administrators at some facilities to cover that up, Congress and the Obama administration passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014.

No shows

Trump drew negative headlines recently when he canceled a trip to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial near Paris due to rain, missing the 100th anniversary of the original Armistice Day.

The cemetery is the burial ground of many of the 1,800 American service members who fell in the battle of Belleau Wood.

Trump’s chief of staff and former Marine Gen. John Kelly attended in his stead, alongside world leaders that included France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

The White House said Trump declined to attend "due to scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather." Trump told Fox News the Secret Service "wouldn’t allow me to go."

"They said, Secret Service said, ‘Sir, you cannot go we are not prepared, you cannot go,’ " Trump said. "Because it was supposed to be helicopter but the helicopter couldn't fly because of zero visibility."

The explanation that inclement weather would ground the president’s Marine One helicopter was met with skepticism from one journalist who is also a pilot. James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic, said, "Helicopters can fly just fine in the rain, and in conditions way worse than prevailed in Paris on Nov. 10."

Fox News’ Wallace pressed Trump on why he declined to attend a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery after returning from his trip to France.

Trump said he was "extremely busy," but in a moment of regret, said he should have attended.

"In retrospect, I should have," he said. "And I did last year, and I will virtually every year."

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