Trump’s battles with military raise risks for November
A feud between President Trump and the Pentagon is escalating weeks before the presidential election in which Trump sees service members, veterans and other military supporters as a key part of his base.
After days battling fallout from an explosive report alleging he made disparaging comments about dead troops, Trump on Monday turned his ire to Pentagon leaders, saying they don’t support him because they are beholden to the defense industry.
Trump’s defenders on Tuesday argued he was evoking President Eisenhower’s famed warning about the military-industrial complex, not attacking any particular Pentagon officials.
But the episode is the latest chapter in an unfolding saga that has raised questions anew about whether Trump can prevent his military support from eroding.
“Whether this particular story moves [voters] or not, it’s the combination of all of the things that have been said and done,” said David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel who served as a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration.
Lapan cited Trump’s controversial decision to intervene in the case of Eddie Gallagher, his attacks on the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his use of troops at the southern border.
The latest row started last week when The Atlantic reported that Trump, in deciding not to visit a cemetery in France for U.S. troops killed in World War I, called those buried there “losers.” The magazine also reported that Trump called U.S. Marines who were killed in the war’s Battle of Belleau Wood “suckers.”
The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Fox News have since independently confirmed many of the elements of The Atlantic’s report.
After the White House spent days orchestrating a forceful and coordinated effort to refute The Atlantic story, Trump created a fresh headache Monday when he appeared to chastise Defense Department leadership as warmongers.
“I’m not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are,” Trump said at a news conference. “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.”
On Tuesday, the Army’s top general, while declining to directly respond to Trump, defended military leaders from accusations they answer to defense contractors.
“I can assure the American people that the senior leaders would only recommend sending our troops to combat when it is required in national security, and in the last resort,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said at an event hosted by Defense One.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on Tuesday disputed Trump’s remarks were a commentary on any particular Pentagon official.
“Those comments are not directed specifically at them as much as it is what we all know happens in Washington, D.C.,” Meadows said. “This president is consistent about one thing. If we’re going to send our sons and daughters abroad to fight on our behalf, he’s not going to let some lobbyist here in Washington, D.C., … suggest they need to stay abroad one minute longer than they should.”
The White House has touted that more than 20 current and former officials have said on the record that they did not hear Trump make the disparaging comments about troops during his trip to France in 2018. Among them are former national security adviser John Bolton, now an outspoken critic of the president, and Zach Fuentes, who served as the top aide to former chief of staff John Kelly.
Advisers to the president argue that the depth and breadth of sources disputing the story show that it is simply not accurate. But it has also lengthened the focus on the president’s alleged remarks and called into question his relationship with military voters.
“The aggressive pushback from the White House I think is tied to the fact that it is two months out from Election Day and they recognize that the military and veteran communities are important to the president,” Lapan said.
The controversy also provided an opening for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who called the reported remarks “disgusting” and has seized upon them in a new ad.
The latest controversy comes after a summer in which Trump fought current and retired Pentagon leaders over his desire to use active-duty troops to quell widespread protests against racial injustice. Trump’s threat prompted Defense Secretary Mark Esper to publicly state he doesn’t support doing so. In response to The Atlantic report, Esper released a two-sentence statement saying Trump respects the military, but he did not directly refute the allegations.
The protests led former Defense Secretary James Mattis to break the silence he has largely maintained since quitting the Trump administration. In a June statement, Mattis said that Trump “tries to divide us.”
Trump has weathered controversies over his treatment of the military and veterans before. During the 2016 election, Trump feuded with a Gold Star family and said McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was not a war hero because he was captured.
Exit polls from the 2016 election indicated veterans voted for Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by a 2-1 margin.
But there are signs Trump’s support among the military is slipping as this year’s controversies pile up. A Military Times poll of active-duty service members released last week and conducted between July 27 and Aug. 10 found about 50 percent reporting an unfavorable view of Trump compared with about 38 percent who said they have a favorable view of the president.
Additionally, 41 percent said they would vote for Biden compared with 37 percent who said they would vote for Trump.
Military Times culls responses from subscribers, which the outlets notes could favor older and career-track service members over junior enlistees. But the results still show a downward trend among those Military Times polls.
In 2016, a Military Times poll found about 40 percent planned to vote for Trump, compared with about 20 percent who planned to vote for Clinton. And a 2019 poll, found Trump had a favorability rating of 42 percent.
Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who was a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush, said he would expect “some slippage” in military support for Trump after the latest dustups, but how much and whether it sways the election remains to be seen.
“There’s probably lots and lots of reasons having to do with the way the president’s handled the civil-military file since 2016 that explain that,” Feaver said of the Military Times poll results. “And more and more, this sort of thing over the last 48 hours just piles on to it. But it’s a small effect on the margins.”
“Now the question is, could a slippage a little bit matter,” he added. “Not in Texas, probably. But could it matter in North Carolina, where it’s a veteran-military heavy state and the projections have it as within a 1 percent chance and where it could be a couple precincts where a 1 percent move could flip the electoral result? Maybe.”