President Trump has escalated his criticism of Pentagon leaders, warning of the power of the military-industrial complex, at the same time the White House worked to refute reports claiming he disparaged American war dead while on an overseas trip.
For Trump, it is part of a wider pattern of railing against established bureaucratic interests ranging from the “deep state” to the “administrative state,” often clashing with his own party, as well as a campaign to end what he calls “endless wars.” But it is risky to alienate potential military and veteran voters, many of whom could be expected to be in Trump’s camp in November — especially as the president has positioned himself as a steadfast supporter of the troops whose administration has rebuilt the U.S. military.
In a Labor Day press conference, Trump argued Democratic challenger Joe Biden “shipped away our jobs, threw open our borders, and sent our youth to fight in these crazy, endless wars.” Trump said his opposition to those wars has earned him the enmity of some current and former high-ranking people in the armed forces.
“And it’s one of the reasons the military — I’m not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are,” the president added. “The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”
“If you want to end the endless wars immediately put a permanent moratorium on retired General’s serving on the boards of defense contractors,” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted on Monday. “We would be out of Afghanistan by Wednesday.”
“It’s fairly counterintuitive to criticize the military while, at the same time, claiming to have rebuilt it,” warned one Washington, D.C.-based Republican operative who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the president. “I would counsel him to say that the Atlantic article is a bunch of lies and move on. But he just doesn’t seem to have the ability to do that. And apparently, he doesn’t understand that when he goes off script, it hurts his reelection prospects, especially when he starts the insults and name-calling.”
Trump’s supporters don’t see any discrepancy between supporting the military and inveighing against the so-called military-industrial complex they frequently note President Dwight Eisenhower referred to in his farewell speech. “From day one, the neocons and the folks who have profited off of American foreign adventurism have opposed Trump,” said conservative strategist Chris Barron. “Trump’s loudest detractors read like a who’s who of failed foreign policy: Bill Kristol, Max Boot, David Frum, Jen Rubin, the list goes on and on.”
“Trump’s support among the military, like his support in the rest of the country, is rooted in his popularity among blue-collar, working-class, and rural voters,” Barron said. “Former generals who have cashed in and have a financial interest in a reckless foreign policy that puts American lives at risk aren’t going to be Trump’s base, and Trump criticizing these folks won’t hurt his standing among average veterans and active-duty soldiers — no matter how much wish-casting is done by CNN and the rest of the mainstream media.”
Trump denounced the Iraq War, calling it a “big, fat mistake” on the debate stage in South Carolina during the 2016 Republican primaries. But instead of sinking his candidacy, Trump won the primary in that military-heavy state, ending Jeb Bush’s campaign instead. Trump carried the Palmetto State a second time in the general election and is favored to do so again in November. Recent polling has shown even many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan now question the wisdom of those wars.
In the beginning of his administration, Trump relied heavily on generals in Cabinet and White House staff roles. Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, tweeted that Trump was “militarizing the White House.” But he later clashed with James Mattis, the general he tapped as his initial secretary of defense, and John Kelly, who first ran the Department of Homeland Security and then became Trump’s chief of staff. They both subsequently departed and have criticized Trump publicly afterward. Generals Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster did not last very long as national security adviser.
A Military Times poll of 1,018 active-duty troops taken before the parties’ national conventions found 49.9% had an unfavorable view of Trump, compared to 38% who viewed the president favorably, despite the military members leaning 40% Republican to just 16% Democratic. The survey said the troops would narrowly prefer Biden to Trump, 41.3% to 37.4%, with nearly 13% opting for a third party. Former President Barack Obama received even worse marks in a January 2017 Military Times poll: 36% favorable, 52% unfavorable.
“I think he read a poll that officers don’t support him, and he got butt hurt,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist who has become a frequent Trump critic.
There have been nearly two dozen on-the-record denials of last week’s Atlantic story claiming Trump called dead U.S. soldiers “losers” and fallen Marines “suckers” while refusing to visit a World War I memorial in France in 2018, though other outlets have attributed similar charges to anonymous sources.