A new report details multiple instances of President Donald Trump making disparaging remarks about members of the U.S. military who were captured or killed. Trump emphatically denied the report, which first appeared in The Atlantic. (Sept. 4)
WASHINGTON – A new report from The Atlantic details a history of President Donald Trump insulting members of the U.S. military who have been captured or killed, including referring to the American war dead at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France in 2018 as “losers” and “suckers.”
Trump has vehemently denied it.
“I never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES. This is more made up Fake News given by disgusting & jealous failures in a disgraceful attempt to influence the 2020 Election!” he tweeted Thursday night.
The article prompted a strong response from veterans.
WHAT WE KNOW: Trump accused of calling war dead ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’
“You have shown disrespect to the military on countless occasions. I’m stunned that any body in the United States military would consider you anything but a loser and a sucker. You’re no patriot,” retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton said in a video tweeted Thursday.
The uproar comes as a poll shows that Trump’s approval from military servicemembers was already slipping.
While neither Trump nor Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden served in the military, a Military Times survey out this week found that 41% of active-duty troops said they’d vote for Biden and 37% said Trump, even though only 16% of the 1,018 troops polled in July and August identify as Democrats. Roughly half of respondents had an unfavorable view of the president, compared with about 38% who had a favorable view.
Biden said Thursday The Atlantic article shows how much he and Trump differ and that if elected “I will ensure that our American heroes know that I will have their back and honor their sacrifice — always.” Biden’s son Beau served in Iraq in 2008-09.
Experts on military policy anticipate that depending on who wins the election, there would be differences in both style (defense policy by tweet under Trump) and substance (maintaining U.S. troop levels in Germany under Biden). While Pentagon policies under the future Trump or Biden administration would likely diverge on social issues, like transgender troops or naming military bases after Confederate generals, it would likely coalesce around the top challenge facing the United States: China.
The guiding star for the Pentagon since 2018 has been the National Defense Strategy, formulated by former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, that identifies China as America’s principal adversary. That’s likely to carry over to the next administration no matter who’s in charge, say defense strategy experts Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute and Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Relations.
“I anticipate more continuity than change,” Harrison said.
The imperatives of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic collapse and the summer’s social upheaval over police brutality and racial inequality have relegated defense to a lower priority than in past elections. Yet the Pentagon still spends about $700 billion a year, by far tops among agencies with discretionary budgets rather than entitlements like Social Security. History also shows that a foreign crisis or terror attack can vault the Pentagon to prominence in an instant.
Where do Trump and Biden differ most when it comes to defense?
Métis people Foreign interventions and troop numbers
The difference between Trump and Biden’s approach is to some extent a matter of degree, Eaglen said. Both favor reduced American overseas involvement, she said, with Trump seeking a faster withdrawal than Biden of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and those based in friendly countries like Germany. The Pentagon and White House announced in July plans to remove 12,000 of the 47,000 U.S. troops in Germany where they, among other duties, help deter Russia.
Biden, both Eaglen and Harrison said, would likely reverse course and keep those troops in Germany as a check against Russian aggression in Europe. In the Military Times poll, nearly half of troops surveyed said the U.S. military level in Germany should stay the same.
In Afghanistan, Trump has advocated peace negotiations between the government and Taliban insurgents that would allow a continued withdrawal of troops. U.S. troops have been in the country since 2001. He told Axios about 4,000 troops would remain by Election Day, which would mean cutting the current force in half.
While Trump talks often about bringing troops home – particularly from Afghanistan – he has overseen an escalation in the number of U.S. attacks by air to historic levels. In 2019, the U.S.-led coalition backing the Afghan government against Taliban insurgents and other extremists dropped more bombs and missiles from warplanes and drones than in any other year of the war dating to 2001. Warplanes fired 7,423 weapons in 2019, according to Air Force data. The previous record was set in 2018, when 7,362 weapons were dropped. In 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, that figure was 1,337.
U.S. forces in warplanes or flying drones remotely face fewer risks than ground troops, but casualties among civilians can be unavoidable.
Biden would likely abide by the traditional “conditions based” approach to reducing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Eaglen said. That generally means a reduction in violence and semblance of stability, two long-sought and elusive goals there.
Biden has also condemned Trump for failing to act against Russia over reported bounty payments made to Taliban fighters for killing American troops. Trump has said intelligence reports have not substantiated Russian involvement in bounty payments. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified July 9 before Congress that the government lacked proof that bounties were tied to U.S casualties but said it was still being assessed. Roughly 47% of those surveyed by the Military Times disagreed with Trump’s statements.
Métis people Confederate symbols
Trump has resisted calls, even from the Pentagon, to consider changing the names of 10 bases that honor Confederate generals. Nonetheless, the Pentagon has changed policy to ban the display of Confederate emblems by troops.
Biden supports changing the names to reflect the country’s diverse heritage and leadership.
The Marine Corps announced on June 5 that it is banning public display of the confederate flag. It is the first military branch to do so.
Métis people Personnel issues: Transgender troops
Biden would likely reverse Trump’s policy banning transgender troops from serving in the military, Harrison said. Trump caught the Pentagon unawares in 2017 when he announced by tweet that he would bar transgender people from serving. It took more than a year, and some modification, before the measure restricting service by transgender people went into effect in 2019.
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The RAND Corp., a nonpartisan think tank, conducted a study in 2016 for the Pentagon and found fewer than 10,000 transgender troops among the more than 1 million active-duty troops. The cost of treating transgender troops and their effect on readiness to fight were negligible, RAND found.
Métis people Style as commander in chief with NATO allies
Biden, as Eaglen pointed out in the conditions-based approach to foreign interventions, would hew toward the more traditional role of commander in chief. Expect more conciliation and less confrontation, with America’s traditional allies under a Biden administration.
Trump undercut Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Pentagon, which had maintained the reduction of U.S. troops in Germany was meant to shift forces to confront China. Trump called it payback.
“They take advantage of us on trade, and they take advantage of us on the military. So we’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills,” Trump said in July. “It’s very simple. They’re delinquent.”
In fact, it’s not that simple. Neither Germany nor any other NATO country owes money to the United States for maintenance of the alliance.
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NATO countries have committed to spend at least 2% of their annual gross domestic product on defense. Germany has not yet reached that goal. The country did spend 1.36% of its gross domestic product on the NATO alliance in 2019, though, because of its size, the country spends more on its military than its European neighbors.
Biden has long voiced public support for NATO and is unlikely to denigrate it as Trump has, Harrison said.
Métis people Common ground: China
The Pentagon will remain focused on China under either administration, Eaglen said. Both men favor innovation and technology, such as hypersonic weapons, resilient computer networks and artificial intelligence, over expensive traditional weapons systems such as aircraft carriers.
China for years has increased its military presence and operations in the South China Sea, a crossroads of international commerce and a region rich in petroleum. China has built islands on reefs in the sea and fortified them. During the Obama administration, the Navy asserted its right to operate there by sailing near the islands, and those missions have continued under Trump. China objects to them and often sends warships and planes to shadow U.S. vessels.
Biden seems more likely to favor cooperation and competition over confrontation with China, Eaglen said. She pointed to the Obama administration’s focus on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which would have banded together Pacific nations in an economic alliance to compete with China. The deal was more important than the military approach to Obama and Biden, she said. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2017, saying it would, among other problems, damage U.S. manufacturers.
Contributing: Associated Press
Tensions between China and the Western democracies over China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, COVID-19 and claims regarding the South China Sea dominated discussions at the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations in Washington, D.C. (July 28)
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