For someone who talks a big game about respecting the military, President Trump spends a lot of time offending service members. His latest affront came after John McCain died Saturday. That night, the president reportedly nixed the released of a statement honoring McCain’s legacy, instead opting to fire off a perfunctory tweet that failed to commend the senator. The next morning, Trump occupied himself by attacking the Justice Department, and on Monday he ordered the American flags at the White House to return to full-staff, despite the tradition that they remain lowered until the deceased can be interned. While appearing before reporters later in the day, Trump refused to answer questions about McCain. Some of America’s most prominent veterans groups were not happy.
“On the behalf of the American Legion’s two million wartime veterans, I strongly urge you to make an appropriate presidential proclamation noting Senator McCain’s death and legacy of service to our nation, and that our nation’s flag be half-staffed through his interment,” Denise Rohan, the national commander of the American Legion, wrote in a statement, adding that McCain “was an American hero and cherished member of The American Legion” before listing his credentials as a Vietnam veteran and member of Congress.
AMVETS posted several tweets expressing their disappointment “in the lack of traditional and appropriate respect in the White House’s reaction to the death of McCain, a “retired Navy captain and former prisoner of the Vietnam war, who gave 60 years of honorable service to his country.”
3️⃣/ deaths of Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd. But John McCain was not just a sitting senator. He was a war hero, twice a presidential contender, and a national treasure who devoted his entire adult life to protecting and improving the American way of life. pic.twitter.com/Qtf3OQnpAG
— AMVETS (@AMVETSHQ) August 27, 2018
Veterans of Foreign Wars chimed in, as well. “The U.S. Flag Code calls for lowering the flag to half-staff on the day of and the day after the death of a member of Congress,” a VFW spokesman told HuffPost. “That the White House did on Saturday and Sunday. We have asked the White House if the honor could be extended. No response back yet.”
The backlash from veterans’ groups reportedly spurred the president to order White House flags be returned to half-staff later on Monday. “Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain’s service to our country, and, in his honor, have signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff until the day of his interment,” Trump said in a statement. While speaking at a dinner celebrating evangelical leadership Monday night, the president said, “We very much appreciate everything that Senator McCain has done for our country.”
AMVETS thanked Trump for ordering the flag be re-lowered to half-staff. The American Legion and the VFW tweeted the news. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an Air Force veteran and one of McCain’s best friends, didn’t seem too bothered about the president’s response during an appearance on the Today show Tuesday morning. “It is all over now,” Graham said. “The flag is down. When the president mentioned John he got applause.” He added that Trump was “not the only one to have a tense relationship with John McCain.”
For some former service members, the damage may have already been done.
Hearing tonight from a surprising number of veterans and vets’ relatives who all say Trump’s handling of McCain’s death, esp the flag fiasco, did irreparable damage to their opinion of him, which had been positive until now.
WH & GOP, take note: It’s more serious than you think.
— Christina Wilkie (@christinawilkie) August 28, 2018
But no one should be surprised by Trump’s pettiness toward McCain, which is only the latest example of the conditionality of the president’s respect for the military. If showing appropriate reverence for service members in any way conflicts with his own ego, he’ll throw any veteran under the bus without giving it a second thought. He did so with McCain after the senator was critical of him in 2015, arguing that the Vietnam veteran — who not only was shot down and jailed, but refused to be released because other American soldiers had been imprisoned longer — was not a war hero. That comment alone should have disqualified Trump from ever pretending to respect those who have served. Veterans, including Lindsey Graham, were outraged.
If there was ever any doubt that @realDonaldTrump should not be our commander in chief, this stupid statement should end all doubt.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 18, 2015
At the heart of @realDonaldTrump statement is a lack of respect for those who have served – a disqualifying characteristic to be president
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) July 18, 2015
Trump never apologized for the statement, and after McCain’s family announced on Friday that the senator had decided to discontinue medical treatment, the Washington Post reported that Trump still did not regret making it.
A year after discounting McCain’s service, Trump bashed Khzir Khan after the Gold Star father criticized Trump during a speech at the Democratic National Convention. “Mr. Khan who has never met me, has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution, (which is false) and say many other inaccurate things,” Trump said in a statement. A few days later, while discussing how he was gifted a Purple Heart by a retired lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, Trump joked about the honor. “And I said, ‘Man, that’s like big stuff. I always wanted to get the Purple Heart,” Trump said. “This was much easier.” (Trump famously received five dubious draft deferments during the Vietnam War.)
Once again, everyone was outraged.
“A direct attack on a Gold Star family, for their patriotism, for their integrity, is totally unprecedented,” Paul Reickhoff, the founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told Rachel Maddow. “This is beyond partisanship. This is about honor. This is about integrity. It’s completely out of bounds.” Reickhoff added a belief that the issue would affect Trump at the polls. “There are 22 million veterans in America,” he said. “Our members are extremely diverse. A lot of them are independents, but they vote at over 90 percent. They’re very influential in their communities.” A few months later, veterans would vote for Trump by a two-to-one margin.
Since becoming president, Trump has continued to make empty, ostentatious shows of support for the armed services. He regularly accuses NFL players of disrespecting the military as they protest police brutality during the national anthem. He ordered the Pentagon to plan an over-the-top military parade in Washington D.C., one that he ultimately canceled as costs ballooned. He has been known to literally hug the flag.
At the same time, the Trump administration is working to prevent transgender Americans from serving their country. On Memorial Day he used dead soldiers as a means to tout his own accomplishments. ProPublica reported earlier this month that three members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club — a Marvel executive, a Palm Beach doctor and a lawyer — were essentially running the Department of Veteran Affairs despite having no relevant experience. A few days later, the administration announced its plan to stop checking for violations of the Military Lending Act, making it easier for financial predators to take advantage of service members and their families. The list goes on.
This is the most inappropriate #MemorialDay comment that a @POTUS has ever made. Self-promotion on a day to remember the fallen, and wishing those remembering their deceased loved ones a “happy” holiday is appalling. #CadetBoneSpurs pic.twitter.com/kRse4dnwiu
— VoteVets (@votevets) May 28, 2018
Veterans have long been used as political props, but never before has a politician failed to uphold so many baseline standards for decency toward those who have served. It hasn’t seemed to matter, though. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which vociferously condemned Trump’s attacks on the Khan family, recently hosted the president in Missouri. The welcome was warm and, as expected, Trump mostly used the occasion to complain to the thousands of veterans assembled in front of him about how unfairly he has been treated by the media. He might as well have been talking to his supporters at one of his campaign-style rallies.
Trump doesn’t respect or care about veterans in any meaningful sense, and, as is the case with Trump’s obstruction of justice and his campaign’s collusion with Russia, the evidence is hiding in plain sight. His behavior is just so abhorrent that it’s easier to find twisted ways to rationalize it rather than confronting the president’s moral vapidity directly. “Everyone keeps talking about this as breaking a taboo, crossing a line and doing something unprecedented,” Maddow said while speaking with Reickhoff in 2016. “Because of that we don’t actually know what the response is. There’s nothing like this in history to say this is the appropriate response or this is the equivalent political fate that befell somebody else who did this.”
The same is true two years later, and while the nation remains paralyzed in bewilderment, Trump continues to be president. His response to McCain’s death won’t be the last time he disrespects the military in service of a mind-numbingly petty grudge or the enrichment of the ruling class. Whenever that next time comes, America will once again be outraged. Now, however, it knows better than to think it will affect Trump at the polls.