Donald Trump headlined an event over the weekend, commissioning the USS Gerald Ford, which wouldn’t have been especially notable, were it not for one important aspect of his remarks. As the Huffington Post noted:
As a Washington Post report added, Trump’s brief appeal “created a potentially awkward tableau at a commissioning event intended to be ceremonial – a commander in chief offering political remarks, and what could even be construed as an order, to the naval officers he commands.”
Trump urged the crowd of about 6,500 people, including uniformed naval officers, to call Congress and ask lawmakers to pass the budget, in which he seeks an additional $54 billion for defense spending in 2018.
“I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it,” he told the crowd, before plugging another item on his agenda. “And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care.”
It’s entirely possible that Trump, new to public service and the structures of government, doesn’t really know anything about the unique relationship between a president and active-duty military personnel. He may not understand, for example, that when a commander in chief asks troops to do something, they’re expected to do it.
Which is why we’re not accustomed to American leaders trying to recruit servicemen and women into lobbying campaigns in support of the White House’s priorities. There are certain norms that our presidents are supposed to honor and protect, and Donald Trump either doesn’t know or doesn’t care where those lines are drawn.
Ben Rhodes, a national security adviser in the Obama White House called Trump’s comments “a huge deal,” adding that Trump’s appeal “violates most fundamental norms separating military and politics.”
I was especially intrigued by the president’s off-the-cuff recommendation that troops “call those senators to make sure you get health care.” Trump didn’t elaborate, and he may not know that servicemen and women already receive taxpayer-financed health care through a government-run system – coverage that is not in jeopardy – which makes it seem as if he tried to recruit these troops to help with the partisan effort to take health care benefits from tens of millions of Americans.
And if so, that’s awfully difficult for anyone to honestly defend.
To be sure, this wasn’t the first time Trump delivered inappropriate remarks, as president, pushing boundaries for no particular reason. When he spoke at the CIA’s headquarters in January, for example, Trump suggested intelligence professionals supported him politically, which was clearly inappropriate.
Similarly, in May, he spoke at the annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service, where he claimed that police officers supported his campaign “big league,” which had no place in such a setting.
Saturday’s display, however, was quite a bit worse. The sooner Trump learns how a president is suppose to behave with U.S. troops, the better.