Why you should care
Because President Trump’s relationship with his military is complicated.
As another sticky August — the most reliable swamp drainer of all — hits the capital, expect President Trump to decamp for an extended vacation to his golf course resort in New Jersey. But that’s not his only travel plans for the month. Trump is stepping up his stumping for midterm candidates, including trips this week to Florida and Ohio. Aside from political jaunts, Air Force One itineraries have included multilateral global summits and one-on-one chats with the likes of Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin.
And yet, more than 18 months into his presidency, Trump has yet to visit American troops serving in harm’s way.
It’s a strange choice in many ways. Trump loves “my generals,” as he calls them, and has elevated military brass to chief of staff (John Kelly), national security adviser (H.R. McMaster, since departed) and secretary of defense (James Mattis) — a post that typically goes to a civilian and for which Congress changed the rules to accommodate the Marine general affectionately known as “Mad Dog.” He’s also palled around with troops and veterans for White House events such as July Fourth. He’s visited military bases and the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge, which was aiding relief efforts to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
But Trump hasn’t journeyed to Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria — or even somewhere where Americans are deployed in the neighborhood, like Kuwait. Nearly all of his predecessors back to World War II made such a jaunt. We don’t know whether this was “out of sincere concern, or whether they were just looking for a photo op, but it was an implicit duty of the commander in chief,” says Andrew Bacevich, a history professor at Boston University. “You go see the troops out there where the troops are serving.”
Surprise visits, such as when George W. Bush dropped in on Baghdad troops for Thanksgiving in 2003, can be major PR wins, and Trump well knows the power of staging a great visual. So what gives? The White House isn’t forthcoming on potential travel plans, and any such danger zone trips are kept under a tight lid until the president arrives, for obvious reasons.
Pageantry is not an issue — just wait for Trump’s defense of American flags and troops when NFL players start kneeling again in a few weeks — but it could be problematic to remind the country that it is at war. Trump leans isolationist. He’s keen to get out of his inherited wars, something Barack Obama can tell you is easier said than done. The New York Times last week reported on plans to wind down special operations missions in Africa, where U.S. troops have died under Trump in Somalia and Niger. Asked recently by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson about why Americans should defend Montenegro, a NATO ally, if it were attacked, Trump said, “I’ve asked the same question,” and called the Montenegrans “very aggressive.” In these moves, he mirrors a war-weary public.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Pentagon has been less and less forthcoming about America’s fights. This year the Department of Defense has imposed fresh restrictions on public information about troop levels and air strikes in war zones. It’s shrinking press access to top officials too.
But the administration is still keen on projecting military might. Trump, taken with France’s Bastille Day event, is planning a grand military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. On Wednesday, Congress passed the annual defense policy bill, a $708 billion measure that beefs up the military and, yes, authorizes Trump to have his grand procession. But with one catch: The parade is not allowed to take resources that could be deployed.