Trump’s Loose Lips on the Military May Not Sink Support With Veterans

A snapshot into the GOP nominee's seeming staying power with veterans and service members in swing-state, military-heavy Virginia.


NORFOLK, Va. — The 2016 campaign trail in the battleground state of Virginia has an obvious theme: defense. One day of following Republican vice-presidential nominee and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence takes you past Marine Corps Base Quantico, on to the “Military Highway,” past the “Purple Heart Trail,” and then to Norfolk, home to the largest naval complex in the world.

Spend time trailing Donald Trump, the New York businessman at the top of the GOP ticket, and now Pence, his running mate, and you’ll see that veterans or even active-duty military are reliably represented in the “Make America Great Again” hat-wearing crowd, often donning their own cap with the branch or war in which they served.

You’ll also hear Trump — who has no experience in public office, the military, or national security — consistently make disparaging comments about the armed services, a strategy seemingly at odds with the strong support he appears to enjoy among the military community.

This week alone, Trump declined to endorse Sen. John McCain in his reelection fight in Arizona, though the Vietnam prisoner of war has thus far resisted pressure to disavow his own pledged support for the nominee. The reality TV show host has also sparred in recent days with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004, with an Islamophobic dog whistle, and seemed to equate his business career with their loss. He topped it off by quipping after a veteran gave him a copy of his Purple Heart that he’d “always wanted” one, but “this was much easier.” Trump received a handful of draft deferments during the Vietnam War.

While there isn’t a wealth of reliable polling data on whether Trump or Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has veterans’ support in 2016, both anecdotally and according to some surveys, the Republican nominee appears to have an edge with the military rank-and-file. It’s an advantage he’s put at risk this week, and one he likely can’t afford to lose.

As Clinton pulls away in nationwide and battleground state polls, Pence, seemingly dispatched to this military-rich swing state on cleanup duty, acknowledged this reality on Thursday.

The “proud father” of an active-duty Marine praised the “sacrifices of the best military on earth,” which he said were squandered by Clinton and President Obama.

“I know where I am,” Pence said in a ballroom at a spa in Virginia Beach, asking veterans and service members in the audience to stand and be recognized. Roughly three dozen did between several events. “Donald Trump will rebuild our military, he will stand with our soldiers,” he said, to cheers, and “Oorah!”

Last Tuesday at a Pence stop in Nevada, the mother of an Air Force service member was booed loudly when she said Trump’s comments to the Khans were just the latest example of his disrespect for the armed forces. “You have a son in the military,” she said to Pence, “how do you tolerate his disrespect?” 

Pence told the crowd “It’s OK,” before he thanked her for her question. “Folks, that’s what freedom looks like and that’s what freedom sounds like,” he said, then came to Trump’s defense.

But the candidate’s latest controversies also beg the question of whether veterans and their families will continue to support him. 

A series of interviews with veterans and active-duty service members at Pence’s events on Thursday indicate while the remarks are concerning to some, they aren’t necessarily peeling off Trump supporters. Most took offense or adamantly disagreed with the comments, as well as key tenets of his alliance-averse, neo-isolationist “America First” foreign policy. And yet many told Foreign Policy they will still support him in November essentially no matter what he says, either backing him specifically for his irreverent tone — or simply because they have no other alternative to Clinton.

The stakes are high — more than 20 million veterans live in the United States, roughly 9 percent of the total population. Many are conservative-leaning and clustered in several key swing states: Florida, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Arizona. Nearly 720,000 veterans live in Virginia alone.

While Trump is known for his off-the-cuff, no-holds-barred style, the latest controversies have prompted veterans groups that typically take pains to remain nonpartisan, such as Veterans of Foreign Wars or Gold Star families of fallen service members, to issue unusually strong repudiations.

The GOP’s power brokers have broken out in a fresh sweat of panic. Just as his general election face-off against the former secretary of state heats up, Trump is taking attention away from her vulnerabilities and playing directly into her campaign’s central attack strategy that he is temperamentally unfit to be commander in chief.

Bill Sowers, who served in the Navy from 1959 to 1986, on the flight deck of aircraft carriers from Vietnam to Panama, summed it up: “I’m gonna vote for him, but I don’t agree with the way he’s running his mouth all the time.”

He said at a Norfolk event that he likes the Trump-Pence ticket because the United States “needs to stop being so politically correct.”

“I don’t think they are going to back down,” he continued, straining to speak over the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” followed by Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” a Pence campaign staple.

He also agreed that NATO members should pay more, and if they don’t, “Get the hell out of there!” he said. But asked about Trump’s suggestion the United States would withdraw from Japan and South Korea, he exclaimed, “You’ve got to stick with them, they’re allies!”

“You’ve got to have forward deployment,” he said, “Because if you don’t, you’re going to be fighting the wars on our soil. Keep it over there.”

At a prior event in Virginia Beach, Bill Coburn, an intelligence specialist for the Air Force for 30 years who retired in 2007, said he liked the way Trump was shaking up the Washington foreign-policy establishment.

But he didn’t believe Trump would actually unravel key alliances such as NATO, and was simply staking out a “tough negotiating position.”

He also pushed back gently on Trump’s claims that the U.S. military or other agencies have no intelligence. “We have very good intelligence,” he said.

As for Trump’s reaction to the Khans, he pointed out Trump is an unpolished politician, but said, “We all could’ve come back in a body bag.”

When Sowers was asked about the Khan controversy, he inexplicably interjected: “Nazi bastard.” Khan is taking payments to go after Trump, Sowers said without evidence, but launched into a tirade on the media “feeding frenzy.”

“We’ve got all these people killed, why are we focusing on him?” he asked, echoing a sentiment expressed by some in the veterans community.

Eventually, he softened. “I felt sorry for him and I respect his loss, but coming out and attacking Trump like that, I thought that was beyond,” he said.

One Vietnam veteran had been talking to two younger, active-duty Navy sailors both coincidentally named Dakota. They declined to give their last names; their superiors had recently re-emphasized military rules against perceived political activity.

“I’m not very easily offended,” the elder one said of Trump’s comments. Still, he took issue with his take on alliances like NATO, saying, “We shouldn’t just go around burning bridges just ’cause.”

He allowed, “Trump I didn’t really like at first. But Hillary, never.”

The younger Dakota was a more enthusiastic Trump supporter, but bristled at Trump’s suggestion he’d sacrificed, and his insult to McCain. He said he only saw his family once a year. His friend added he’d missed his younger sister growing up.

“He doesn’t know what we do,” the younger said. “He doesn’t know real sacrifice.”

Trump still has his vote.

Photo credit: Alex Wong / Staff

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