- By Molly O’TooleMolly 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.
Donald Trump’s campaign has often dispatched his unflappable, stick-to-the-script running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, for damage control operations after the Republican nominee has made controversial remarks about the military.
Pence may find himself in a similar role during Tuesday’s vice presidential debate after Trump’s latest flap, in which he suggested veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, are not as strong as other soldiers in combat and “can’t handle it.”
His remarks at a town hall event Monday for veterans set off a storm on social media, with some retired soldiers expressing incandescent rage that Trump would imply that those who experience trauma-related aftereffects are weaker than those who do not. The Trump campaign, and some sympathetic vets, insisted the presidential candidate’s remarks were taken out of context.
For active-duty soldiers in uniform, their families, and those who have served since 9/11, questions about PTSD, national security, and defense spending are not abstract issues but deeply personal. That goes for the two vice presidential candidates facing off in their first and only debate Tuesday in Farmville, Virginia. Pence’s son, Michael, is a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine’s oldest son, Nathaniel, is a Marine infantry officer.
Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton have been relying heavily on their running mates to make their commander-in-chief case for them in key swing states with sizable military communities, including in Virginia and North Carolina.
Clinton currently leads Trump in both states, by 8.2 points in Virginia and by little more than a percentage point in North Carolina, according to a Real Clear Politics average of two-way polls. She leads by 3.8 points nationwide in a head-to-head matchup. Despite Clinton’s slight edge on national security issues in the polls, Trump has significant support among the military community, and both campaigns are fighting hard for their votes.
With neither Trump nor Clinton having served in uniform, both Pence and Kaine often refer to their sons’ service in order to give their argument a powerful emotional punch. Pence, however, is accustomed to having to try to reassure audiences in the wake of Trump’s often inflammatory, provocative comments.
In August, as Trump continued to spar with the family of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq and said getting a Purple Heart from a veteran supporter was “easier” than having to earn it on the battlefield, Pence described himself on the campaign trail as the “proud father” of an active-duty Marine. He praised the “sacrifices of the best military on earth,” which he said had been squandered by Clinton and President Barack Obama.
At Monday’s event in Virginia, Trump was asked by a member of the audience about mental health options for veterans, and the Republican said more help was needed. But he also offered his own explanation for why some veterans experience PTSD and others don’t.
“When you talk about the mental health problems, when people come back from war and combat and they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over, and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” Trump said.
“And they see horror stories, they see events that you couldn’t see in a movie — nobody would believe it,” he continued. “We need a mental health help and medical. And it’s one of the things that I think is least addressed, and it’s one of the things that I hear the most about when I go around and talk to the veterans.”
His remarks split the veteran community, with some blasting Trump while others criticized media coverage of his comments, according to the Military Times.
The Trump campaign later sent out a statement by the audience member who asked the question, Marine Staff Sgt. Chad Robichaux, the president and founder of the Mighty Oaks Foundation in Temecula, California, who called it “sickening” that “anyone would twist Mr. Trump’s comments to me in order to pursue a political agenda.”
But Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Beau served in the military and was deployed to Iraq, lashed out at Trump for what he called his “profound” ignorance. “How can he be so out of touch? He’s not a bad guy. But how can he be so out of touch and ask to lead this country?” he said in an interview with CNN.
The episode adds to a growing list of controversies on military topics for the tycoon-turned-reality TV star. Early in his campaign, Trump said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a prisoner of war in Vietnam who was subjected to abuse and torture, was not a hero, though Trump himself received several medical deferments that allowed him to avoid the draft. He has implied he would fire all of the top military brass because he said they are not worth listening to, though he’s also suggested he would put generals in the top echelons of his administration. And Trump repeatedly cites an incorrect statistic for suicide among veterans, as he did again Monday.
Kaine often reminds voters of Trump’s remarks — as well as the Republican nominee’s other controversies and gaffes on foreign policy — to make the case that Trump doesn’t have the temperament or experience to be commander in chief.
The Democratic vice presidential candidate is likely to seize on the latest controversy during Tuesday night’s debate. And he also will likely focus on recent reports that Trump may not have paid federal income taxes for up to 18 years, that Trump may have broken the law by reportedly doing business with sanctioned Cuban and Iranian organizations, and why Trump keeps up personal and public attacks on women — including a former Miss Universe.
For his part, Pence is expected to portray the Iran nuclear deal — which Clinton has endorsed — as a disastrous agreement that will allow Tehran to build up its power in the Middle East. And he probably will repeat accusations that the Obama administration has failed to invest in the military and that Clinton cannot be trusted to protect America’s interests abroad or stand up to the country’s adversaries.
Whatever the issue, both vice presidential picks will be eager to refer to their sons in uniform to connect with military voters and their families.
In his first speech as Clinton’s vice presidential pick, Kaine linked questions about Trump’s knowledge and credibility on foreign policy with his own son’s military service.
Citing Trump’s suggestion that he might pull the United States out of NATO and his friendly stance toward Russia, Kaine said in July that his son would deploy to Europe shortly to “uphold America’s commitment to our NATO allies.”
“For me, it drives home the stakes in this election,” he said.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN, SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images