The Donald Trump We All Know

The 1988 vice presidential debate with Democrat Lloyd Bentsen on the left, Republican Dan Quayle on the right

Former Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen might have put it this way: Mr. President…, I knew Ike. Ike was a friend of mine. Mr. President, you are no Ike.

President Donald Trump probably was not intentionally channeling President Dwight Eisenhower Monday when he criticized the Pentagon brass: “I’m not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are. 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.”

President Dwight Eisenhower delivering his Farewell Address

The current president’s knowledge of American history is scanty at best, so it is doubtful that he has even a cursory awareness of Eisenhower’s famous Farewell Address in which the soon-to-be-out of office president warned of the possible dangers of a huge arms industry. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower said. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Nor was Trump repeating the slogan of “the merchants of death” made famous by isolationists exposing the international arms trade during the period between the two World Wars.

No, Trump probably was just trying to rope top military leaders into the circle of the “Deep State,” which he claims is out to get him, while making a clumsy stab at the votes of the rank-and-file, whom he may hope will support him if he makes a desperate stab at staying in power after he is defeated on November 3. Trump’s ignorance did not stop others from comparing Trump to Ike. “You are free to dislike and hysterically respond to any and all criticism of the military industrial complex,” tweeted Mollie Hemingway, a conservative political commentator. “You are not free to claim that it’s unprecedented for a president to critique it.” Russia Today joined the fray, noting that Eisenhower “coined” the phrase “military-industrial complex” and citing at length Trump’s remarks about military spending.

President Donald Trump denying he disparaged U.S. soldiers

And, of course, the president was attacking arms spending as a way to deflect attention from his embarrassing remarks cited by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic about soldiers who are “losers” and “suckers.” Surely, few will buy Trump’s curious criticism of the “wonderful companies that make bombs and make the planes.” Like so much that comes out of Trumps’s mouth, the assertion that he is not a friend of military spending is, at best, a distortion of his record as president or, at worst, an outright lie.

No one has been more zealous in building up the military than Trump. The president’s military budgets have topped $700 billion, and the defense spending bill he signed in 2018 is the largest budget the Pentagon has ever received. Trump frequently boasts that he has “rebuilt” the military after President Barack Obama allegedly depleted stockpiles of hardware. Trump’s current defense secretary is a former top corporate lobbyist for Raytheon, a leading defense contractor, exemplifying the kind of cozy interaction between industry and military that Eisenhower had in mind when he gave his Farewell Address.

President Trump discussing arms sales with Saudi leaders

Top defense contractors are profiting (profiteering?) from Trump-approved sales of military equipment to foreign nations. In fiscal 2018, Trump awarded more than $55 billion in foreign weapons sales, compared to $33 billion in the last year of the Obama presidency. Trump cited the huge profits from the sale of military hardware to Saudi Arabia as his excuse for not moving against the Desert Kingdom after the brutal murder of Saudi dissent Jamal Khashoggi. Stopping the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia “would be hurting us,” the president said. The idea that Trump is an opponent of the defense industry is “pure fantasy,” says National Security Action, a liberal advocacy group. “Trump has consistently prioritized the financial interest of America’s defense contractors,” the organization added in its statement. 

It is true that military leaders oppose some of Trump’s policies: His coolness toward NATO; his betrayal of the Kurds; his fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin; and his withdrawal of U.S. forces around the world. It is also true that Eisenhower was right: The intimacy between the top military brass and defense contractors is dangerous and leads to greater spending. But, Trump has never been an opponent of colossal military budgets, so his johnny-come-lately critique rings hollow. The president is also wrong to claim ”the soldiers… love” him. A Military Times poll shows a preference among active-duty troops for Democratic nominee Joe Biden for president. 

Trump knows his remarks denigrating soldiers who have given their lives serving our country are damaging. So, he does what Trump always does: Deflect by saying something outrageous to draw attention away from the original comments. As David Frum points out in The Atlantic, Trump generates noise, talks, tweets, and encourages his sycophants at home and abroad to defend him. Never has he shouted louder than in trying to knock down Goldberg’s story. 

First Lady Melania Trump, President Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron at an event marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I

Trump had been defended by his wife, White House officials, and some, but not all, in the employ of Fox News. But, once the comments of the usual suspects are processed, what is noticeable is the absence of defense from senior officers in the armed forces and former officials of the Trump administration. None have stepped forward and said Trump could never have smeared service members in the way Goldberg alleges. The response of former National Security Adviser John Bolton is instructive. Bolton was on the trip to Europe in 2018 when Trump purportedly called fallen soldiers “losers” and “suckers.” Bolton says he did not hear those remarks, but added, “I’m not saying he didn’t say them later in the day or another time.” Bolton also says, “I haven’t heard anybody yet react to say, ‘That’s not the Donald Trump I know.’”

Retired Marine General John Kelly with President Trump at Arlington cermetery

Because it is the Donald Trump we know! The silence of John Kelly, to whom Trump expressed wonderment at the sacrifice of service members while visiting the grave of Kelly’s son, killed in Afghanistan, is deafening. So is the silence of other military people who served with Trump, like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The comments ascribed in The Atlantic to Trump are credible because we know he has said much the same in the past, including calling John McCain, a genuine war hero, a “loser.” It is on tape and in a tweet, though Trump lied and denied that he had ever done so. Further evidence comes in Bob Woodward’s soon-to-be released book, Rage, in which trade adviser Peter Navarro recalls Trump saying, “My fucking generals are a bunch of pussies.” 

It is the Donald Trump we all know.

Posted September 11, 2020

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