The Cable

Trump’s Memorial Day Message: ‘We Don’t Win With Military’

The GOP nominee slams the military in a Memorial Day weekend speech to a crowd of veterans and families on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Trumpvets

Under the stony eye of President Abraham Lincoln, down the marble steps from where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and over the rumbling of thousands of bikers gathered to honor those who serve in the military, Donald Trump on Sunday told a crowd of veterans and their families: “We don’t win with military.”

In a red ballcap with his trademark “Mark America Great Again,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee told a biker gear-clad crowd, many sporting military patches, that Memorial Day is “our day.” Trump has claimed that attending a military academy during his high school years was essentially the same as serving. He also effectively dodged the draft during the Vietnam War with claims of bone spurs, educational deferments, and a high draft number.

“When you think of the great Gen. Patton and all of our great generals, they’re spinning in their graves when they watch we can’t beat ISIS,” Trump said. He added later, “Our country doesn’t win anymore; we don’t win with military.”

Yet a number of the onlookers said the comments were refreshing rather than offensive, underscoring the challenge for the campaign of likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her unlikely “Never Trump” GOP allies.

Rolling Thunder, the group that organizes the annual Memorial Day weekend motorcycle event, invited Trump to speak. Traditionally, the motorcycle ride from the Pentagon to the National Mall, begun in 1988 to bring attention to prisoners of war and those missing in action in Vietnam, is more patriotic than partisan.

But Trump delivered a defiant version of his stump speech. As part of an ever-shifting foreign policy he dubs “America First,” he said the U.S. shouldn’t spend so much time “defending other countries who don’t even like us.” He also reiterated he’d consider pulling U.S. troops out of NATO, a multilateral security alliance, as well as Japan and South Korea. “You always have to be prepared to walk, folks,” he said.

Repeating a popular conservative line on the campaign trail, he continued, “We have to rebuild our military, it’s been decimated.” Actually, military spending is at historic highs.

Trump criticized Clinton, his likely general election opponent, for comments on the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs’s continued struggle with wait times.

Trump also has come under fire from the veterans community for his belated granting of funds promised to veterans groups. On Sunday, he repeated he had raised $6 million (though campaign officials have suggested it’s less), and said he would announce on Tuesday which groups received the money.

Early in Trump’s campaign, he said that Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a POW in Vietnam, was not a hero. McCain has said Trump owes POWs an apology; Trump has thus far declined to grant one.

Yet such breaks with decades of U.S. foreign policy and general decorum is what has helped boost Trump’s campaign — including with veterans.

Byron Jones of North Carolina, who’s ridden in Rolling Thunder more than two-dozen times, and served in Vietnam as an Army Ranger, said he likes Trump’s “plain talkin’.” “He’s not a politician,” he told Foreign Policy.

“We would’ve won that war if they would’ve let us,” he said of Vietnam.

Also in Trump’s audience was Lillian Anderson, who was working but decided to listen. She has two daughters serving in the Navy, an ex-husband who served in the Air Force, and a grandfather who served in WWII.

“In a way I understand, because if you stretch the military too thin, then it’s not effective,” she said of Trump’s speech, though she added he needs to get more specific about his policy proposals. “I just don’t want him to start another war,” she added, saying his off-the-cuff style is risky.

Asked whether she supports Trump, Anderson cautioned him to respect the military, given he hasn’t served. “Don’t go there,” she said. Yet she said she’s now leaning toward Trump, “even though I know it’s finger food.”

“It’s rhetoric,” Anderson laughed, “you have to separate it from the real stuff.”

Credit: Alex Wong / Staff

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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