WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump’s numerous lies on military issues, from claims of delivering historic pay raises to providing brand new ships and planes, do not appear to be working with service members, with polling suggesting he could lose this traditional Republican voting bloc this November.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden leads Trump, 41% to 37%, in a survey of more than 1,000 subscribers to the Military Times. Trump held a 20-percentage-point lead over Hillary Clinton in the same poll before the 2016 election.
In the recent survey, Trump may even have caught a break because it was taken several weeks before Thursday’s Atlantic magazine article revealed new details of his disdain for those who serve in the military. Trump called service members who get injured or killed “suckers” and “losers,” according to the article, and he called off a planned 2018 visit to a cemetery in France where 1,800 World War I U.S. troops are buried because he didn’t want the rain to ruin his hair.
The weak polling numbers for Trump also were recorded despite his repeated claims that he has done more for the military than any previous president, including providing “brand new” ships, planes, tanks and rockets, the largest budgets, the highest pay raises and programs like VA Choice, which lets veterans seek private doctors if the wait periods at Veterans Affairs clinics and hospitals are too long.
“I got soldiers brand new equipment, brand new jets, brand new rockets, brand new ― $2.5 trillion. I did more for the military than any president that’s ever had this office,” he told Fox News in July.
“I’ve done more, I think, than almost anybody to help our military, to get the budgets of our military, to get the pay raises for our military,” Trump said again late Thursday night on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrew after returning from a rally near Pittsburgh.
In fact, each one of his claims is at best an exaggeration and at worst a lie. While his total military budgets are larger than those in predecessor Barack Obama’s second term when House Republicans insisted on cutting spending, they are smaller than those in Obama’s first term, after adjusting for inflation. Similarly, the pay raises he brags about are the cost-of-living increases that have been standard for years.
New ships, planes and other hardware take many years to design and build, so new equipment coming online now is thanks to Obama or his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush. And the VA Choice Act, which Trump has now lied about over 150 times, was passed in 2014 and signed into law by Obama.
Trump has peddled other falsehoods about the armed forces, including the notion that they had no ammunition at the end of Obama’s presidency or, more bizarrely, that the F-35 fighter is actually invisible, rather than difficult to detect on radar.
He also tried to claim as successes events that were clear failures ― including the very first military operation he approved just five days after taking office: a counterterrorism raid into Yemen he authorized over a social dinner with then-chief strategist Stephen Bannon and son-in-law Jared Kushner – rather than with his National Security Council staff. It killed 25 civilians, including nine children under 13, as well as Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, in addition to losing a $75 million tilt-rotor Osprey helicopter.
Trump was berated for that decision by Owens’ father at the return of the SEAL’s body at Dover Air Force Base on Feb. 1, 2017, rattling him so badly that he stopped attending “dignified transfer” ceremonies for two years. As of today, three-and-a-half years into his presidency, Trump has only attended four such ceremonies, of the 96 that have taken place.
“As we see the American public tire of the constant, absurd lying from Donald Trump, we’re seeing the same from our military,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran with the progressive group VoteVets. “Our troops know they never ran out of ammunition. Who in the military does he think he’s kidding? It’s just patently insulting to service members to be lied to.”
“What I hear consistently from military families is that they know it’s all fake. The pay raises were no bigger than any in the past and many families have been pushed out of using military health care facilities so they’re paying copays off post,” said Fred Wellman, a retired Army helicopter pilot with 22 years of service who now works with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “They don’t believe the lies because they are living it every day. You can’t fool people who are living day to day with the truth.”
Wellman added that the Atlantic article is likely to erode Trump’s support even further. “I think this one cuts to the core of our values and culture,” he said. “Yeah, there are a lot of loud voices screaming ‘fake news,’ but I am being pummeled with fellow veterans who are outraged. I’ve never seen this much anger before.”
“So at some point, military families do notice. And they are. They get it. They’re not important to him.”
How much, exactly, the new revelations might hurt Trump in November are unclear. His support among service members is already at a historic low in modern presidential elections for a Republican, and particularly a GOP incumbent.
In 2004, still in the shadow of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, exit polls showed that Bush still won the vote of service members and veterans, 57% to 41%, over Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient John Kerry, the Democratic nominee.
In Trump’s 2016 win, exit polls showed he won the military vote 60% to 34% over Clinton, even though Trump avoided the Vietnam War by claiming non-existent “bone spurs” to get a medical deferment.
That support, however, has been eroding steadily, notwithstanding Trump’s repeated claims of how much the military loves him. Upon taking office, service members surveyed by the Military Times approved of him, 46% to 37%. That had fallen to 44%-43% by 2018, and sank deep into negative territory in the latest poll, with 50% disapproving and only 38% approving.
Rosalinda Maury, director of Applied Research and Analytics at Syracuse University’s Institute of Veterans and Military Families, said that while the military is absolutely a conservative institution, the poll is revealing a “disagreement with policy and decision-making as it relates to national security.”
According to the Military Times survey, service members oppose Trump on his intervention in the military justice system by pardoning officers in controversial war-crimes cases, on his failure to confront Russia about the reported bounties for the killing of U.S. troops, and of his desire to deploy active-duty military to control protests in U.S. cities.
The publication, working with Maury’s group, surveys its subscribers, a cohort that tends to include officers and enlisted personnel who view the military as a career, rather than people who join with the intention of remaining just a few years.
Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who served on the National Security Council staff under both Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican Bush, said Trump’s “brand” of flouting establishment norms does not help with an organization like the military.
“The military as an institution is very establishment and built on norms,” he said.
Apart from disagreements over policy, though, are more pragmatic considerations. When Trump could get neither Mexico nor Congress to pay for a wall he had promised his supporters he would build along the southern border and raided funds from the military budget instead, it was military families who felt that pain, Wellman said.
In Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne, that pain involved seeing money that had been slated for a school head south to build steel fencing.
“He took money for a new middle school and sent it to build a wall,” Wellman said. “So at some point, military families do notice. And they are. They get it. They’re not important to him.”