WASHINGTON – As Donald Trump laid the groundwork in 1999 to run for president as the Reform Party candidate, he made a little-remembered attack on the person he saw as a rival in a possible general election campaign: Republican John McCain.
Many considered McCain a war hero for surviving five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and a television interviewer asked why Trump felt he was more qualified to be commander in chief.
“Does being captured make you a hero? I don’t know. I’m not sure,” Trump said in the CBS interview.
A few years earlier, Trump had bragged on a morning radio show about avoiding the Vietnam draft, remarking that one of the show’s hosts who had gotten out of service by declaring he had a bad knee had done a “good job.”
Long before Trump’s views of the military would emerge as a flash point in his 2020 reelection campaign – before he would shock the political world with the more widely seen 2015 attack on McCain, in which he said the senator was “not a war hero” and declared, “I like people who weren’t captured” – Trump had a long track record of incendiary and disparaging remarks about veterans and military service.
Many of his remarks are memorialized in television interviews and the tapes of radio conversations with shock jocks, dating to his years as a private citizen and businessman.
Trump, who avoided military service by citing a bone spur in his foot, has disparaged veterans who were wounded or captured or missing in action, and he compared his fear of sexually transmitted diseases to the experience of a soldier, saying in 1993, “if you’re young, and in this era, and if you have any guilt about not having gone to Vietnam, we have our own Vietnam. It’s called the dating game.”
It is a history filled with contradictions, of a man who denigrates his handpicked generals while saying no one supports the military more than he does, and of a commander in chief who questions the bravery of some soldiers even as he reversed disciplinary action against a Navy SEAL over the objections of Pentagon officials. He was raised in a family that criticized the value of military service, according to niece Mary L. Trump, but nonetheless he was sent to a military academy for most of his teenage years.
And now, Trump and his aides are fiercely denying a report in The Atlantic in which the president is quoted denigrating U.S. soldiers, including calling those killed in combat “losers.”
Trump has on rare occasions admitted that he struggles with how to address military issues because of his efforts to get out of service.
He told The Washington Post in 2015 that he “always felt somewhat guilty” about not serving in the military. “I had a lot of deferments,” Trump said. “I had a foot deferment for a short time. And then I got a lucky number. I got 356 [out of 365]. You don’t get a luckier number than that.”
In what he called an effort to make up for his guilt, Trump said he “spent a fortune” to build a Vietnam memorial in New York City and sponsor a Memorial Day parade. The Post has reported that Trump gave $1 million in 1985 to help build the memorial and at least $200,000 for the 1995 parade.
At the time of the memorial dedication in 1985, Trump struck a tone more in line with the traditions of honoring the service of those who fought for their country.
“I was a very strong opponent of the Vietnam War,” Trump said when the memorial was dedicated, “but I also recognized that the people who went to fight were great Americans.” Trump also highlighted the plight of those missing in action, reading a telegram from then-President Ronald Reagan that said the federal government wanted “the fullest possible accounting of your missing comrades in arms.”
Such comments stand in stark contrast to Trump’s later criticisms of POWs, as well as private comments, reported by The Post last week, that he did not understand why the U.S. government spent so much effort to find missing soldiers who he believed had performed poorly and were caught. Trump told senior advisers that those who served in Vietnam were “losers” because they did not find a way to avoid service, a person familiar with the matter told The Post.
Military historians said there is no precedent for a commander in chief to have made such attacks on the military he oversees.
“He may imagine, however bizarre, that this is a way to energize his so-called base” that agreed with his disdain for “endless wars,” said Andrew Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and author of “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.”
“I believe that is one explanation for why he won in 2016 – it came from his willingness to basically denounce post-9/11 military policy as foolhardy, and very few members of the political mainstream were willing to say that,” said Bacevich, who said he will not vote for Trump and may support a minor-party candidate. “Since his presidency, he hasn’t ended endless wars, but I just wonder if in some way, if we are looking for a reason, this is some other expression of his opposition to foolish wars.”
The White House issued the following statement in response to questions for this story: “President Trump has nothing but the utmost, solemn respect for our nation’s military. He lauds their heroism and has consistently been the strongest advocate for our veterans and active servicemen and women.”
The roots of Trump’s view of the military were formed at an early age, according to friends and family. Growing up in a mansion in Jamaica Estates in Queens, Trump heard the family criticize those who joined the military instead of going into business. Trump and his father, Fred Trump Sr., were especially focused in criticizing the decision by Donald’s older brother, Fred Jr., to join the U.S. Air National Guard, according to Fred Jr.’s daughter, Mary L. Trump.
“My father was frequently ridiculed for his career choices and disparaged for serving our country by both his father and by his brother Donald,” said Mary L. Trump, author of a book critical of the president. She said that given the family history regarding the military, it is “beyond comprehension” that her uncle is commander in chief.
Notwithstanding the family criticism of the military, Donald was such an unruly boy that his father decided he needed to impose discipline on the 13-year-old by sending him to the New York Military Academy for five years.
Trump’s long periods of separation from his family at such an early age, as he was thrust into a militaristic regimen for which he had little aptitude, may have embittered him and created resentment toward some military figures, according to schoolmate John Bolog, who lived a few blocks from Trump in their Jamaica Estates neighborhood and often shared a ride with him when one of their mothers drove them to the academy.
Bolog noted a previously reported episode in which Trump headed the A Company but was quickly transferred to a different position because of a dispute over his leadership capabilities. It was one of several experiences that may have weighed heavily on Trump and shaped his view of the military, Bolog said.
“You have to know that those formative years are what formed his opinion of the military,” Bolog said. “You come from your beautiful home in Jamaica Estates and suddenly you get dropped off at this military school, it was darkness, it was horrible. So spending five years there and then having a cold, rich man as your father, I can’t imagine it. It’s got to harden your bark.”
Other classmates have said the experience was a positive one, and Trump told The Post in 2016 that he left his position at A Company because of a promotion. “I had total control over the cadets,” he said. “I did very well under the military system,” Trump said, while declining to release his transcripts.
Trump wrote in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” that if he stepped out of line at the academy, one of his instructors “smacked [him] hard.” He said that he initially was not happy about being sent to the school but that he “learned a lot about discipline, and about channeling my aggression into achievement.” He wrote that “I can’t say I ever worked very hard” at the school and “was never all that interested in schoolwork.”
By the time Trump graduated in 1964, some of his peers were volunteering for service in Vietnam, but Trump used a series of deferments to attend college. Upon graduation from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, Trump faced the prospect of being subject to the draft, which began in 1969. Trump then received a medical deferment for what his campaign called “bone spurs on both heels of his feet.” The daughters of the podiatrist who determined that Trump had bone spurs told The New York Times that the diagnosis was made as a favor to Trump’s father, Fred Sr., who was the doctor’s landlord.
Shortly after that, Trump entered the draft lottery, in which he received a high number that ensured he would not be called to serve.
Years later, Trump repeatedly congratulated himself and others for avoiding military service. Appearing on Howard Stern’s radio show in 1995, he said that “during the Vietnam War, I got very lucky. I had a very high lottery number.”
Stern responded that a member of his staff, whom he referred to as Jackie the Joke Man, “convinced the doctor that he had a bad knee. I love that.”
“Well, that was a good job, Jackie,” Trump said.
Trump’s aversion to service reportedly filtered into his own family. In her book, Mary L. Trump wrote that when Trump’s son Don Jr. said he might join the military, Trump and his then-wife, Ivana, “told him if he did, they’d disown him in a second.”
By the time Trump decided to seek the Reform Party presidential nomination in 1999, he veered far from the comments he had made 14 years earlier at the dedication of the Vietnam War memorial he helped finance.
At the time, thousands of people flocked to events at which McCain autographed copies of his memoir of the Vietnam War, a prelude to his first presidential bid. In McCain’s book “Faith of My Fathers,” he cast his decision to serve as putting self-sacrifice for his country ahead of personal ambition.
Trump countered by appearing on the CBS show “60 Minutes II” to promote his campaign book, “The America We Deserve,” and tout his presidential ambitions. He was asked to comment on his potential rivals. It was then that, as interviewer Dan Rather said that McCain “flew combat missions with distinction,” Trump questioned whether the shoot-down of McCain’s plane and subsequent capture made him a hero.
Mark Salter, who co-wrote McCain’s memoir, said he had no recollection of Trump making the comment at the time and never heard McCain mention it.
“In 1999, McCain’s message was sacrifice for a cause greater than one’s self,” said Salter, co-founder of a group of former McCain staffers supporting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. “For Donald Trump, there isn’t a cause greater than self-interest . . . sometimes he doesn’t know he is hurting his self-interest.”
Trump withdrew from the campaign in February 2000.
As Trump prepared for his 2016 bid, he told his then-attorney Michael Cohen to prepare for questions about his lack of military service, Cohen later told the House Oversight Committee. Cohen said he asked Trump to provide his medical records that would document the bone spur that enabled him to avoid being drafted. “He gave me none and said there was no surgery,” Cohen told lawmakers. Trump ended the conversation by saying, “You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam,” Cohen said.
As Trump watched the 2016 Democratic National Convention, he became infuriated at a speech by Khizr Khan, whose son Army Capt. Humayun Khan was killed in a 2004 car bombing in Iraq. After Khizr Khan said Trump had “sacrificed nothing” for his country and had smeared Muslims, Trump seemed to compare the death of a soldier to his financial achievements.
“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices,” Trump said. “I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success.”
Trump was ridiculed across the political spectrum for picking a fight with the parents of a fallen soldier, but he won the election, touting his pledge to “rebuild the military.” He said he knew more about the Islamic State “than the generals do, believe me.”
As president, defense spending rose each of the first three years he was in office, with more than $2 trillion in overall spending and $738 billion approved for 2020. The Pentagon greeted the money warmly after facing cuts during the Obama administration that included a reduction in the overall size of the military, smaller pay raises and a shortage in spare parts.
Trump’s criticism of “endless wars” has resonated with voters, including a majority of veterans, who believe that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth it, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
But Trump’s relationship with the military sometimes has fractured over his abrupt decisions.
For example, while Trump has reduced the number of U.S. troops under his watch in Afghanistan to about 4,000 as part of negotiations with the Taliban to end the war there, violence has remained high, and there is no clarity on whether a full peace deal will be reached. Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria last year triggered a period in which Russian forces took over American bases, and some veterans decried what they saw as an abandonment of Kurdish forces who have partnered with the United States against the Islamic State.
Trump has had fights with the generals he put in power, some of whom left in anger and dismay. In a 2017 meeting at the Pentagon, he called his top generals “losers” and “a bunch of dopes and babies,” according to “A Very Stable Genius,” by Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig. Among those who have departed include his chief of staff, retired general John Kelly, and his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, a McCain favorite.
Mattis said earlier this year that “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.” In response, Trump, who had once lavished praise on Mattis, tweeted: “I didn’t like his ‘leadership’ style or much else about him. . . . Glad he is gone!”
The Washington Post’s Alice Crites, Dan Lamothe and Carol Leonnig contributed to this report.