U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks past the guns of the USS Iowa after speaking on the battleship in San Pedro, Los Angeles, Calif., United States Sept. 15, 2015. 
Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Trump’s praise for the military comes with a caveat

Fourteen years ago this month, soon after the U.S. military had brought down Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Al Franken ran into Paul Wolfowitz at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. There’s no recording of the exchange, but according to reports at the time, the comedian, several years before his Senate career, told the deputy defense secretary, “Clinton’s military did pretty well in Iraq, huh?”

As legend has it, Wolfowitz “responded by proposing that Franken perform an anatomically impossible act.”

Franken’s point, of course, is that George W. Bush may have complained quite a bit on the campaign trail about the strength of the U.S. military in 2000, but after taking office, the Bush/Cheney administration quickly discovered that the armed forces it inherited from the Clinton administration was plenty strong, indeed.

The anecdote came to mind this week listening to Trump talk about the state of the U.S. military. Note, for example, this exchange between the president and Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo on Wednesday, when Trump described the scene in which he told Chinese President Xi Jinping about the U.S. strike last week in Syria.
TRUMP: I was sitting at the table. We had finished dinner. We’re now having dessert. And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it. And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded, what do you do? And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way. And I said, Mr. President, let me explain something to you. This was during dessert. We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.

BARTIROMO: Unmanned? Brilliant.

TRUMP: It’s so incredible. It’s brilliant. It’s genius. Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five. I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing. Now we’re going to start getting it, because, you know, the military has been cut back and depleted so badly by the past administration….
You could almost see the president make the realization that the praise for the state of the military might be a political problem, because he’s spent a year and a half telling Americans that Obama left the military in shambles. The rhetoric was a lie, which in turn leaves Trump in a jam: how can he celebrate the might of our military without discrediting his own talking points?

The answer, apparently, is to clumsily argue that the military is amazing and it was depleted by that rascally predecessor of his.

Trump tried to walk the same line yesterday. Asked yesterday about the use of a MOAB in Afghanistan, the president wouldn’t directly answer questions about whether he authorized the mission or not, but he told reporters:
“Everybody knows exactly what happened. And what I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world, and they’ve done their job as usual. So we have given them total authorization, and that’s what they’re doing. And, frankly, that’s why they’ve been so successful lately. If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what’s happened over the last eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference – tremendous difference.

“So we have incredible leaders in the military, and we have incredible military. And we are very proud of them. And this was another very, very successful mission.”
So the moral of the story is: Trump good, military good, Obama bad. Got it.

Franken’s 2003 jab to Wolfowitz resonates for a reason. Trump is obviously the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, but he hasn’t actually done anything in terms of changing the strength or size of the military. This is the fighting force he inherited when he took office nearly three months ago.

The more he’s impressed with the military’s potency, the more he concedes the criticisms of Obama don’t make a lot of sense.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump

Trump's praise for the military comes with a caveat