One of the biggest surprises from Donald Trump’s first summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un was a unilateral concession from the American president: the Republican announced that he had canceled military training exercises with our South Korean allies, for the first time in 70 years, in exchange for nothing. (We later learned the president got the idea from Vladimir Putin.)
Soon after, Trump scrambled to justify the concession, but in the process, he ended up echoing North Korean talking points. The American leader criticized his own country’s military exercises as “very provocative” and “inappropriate.”
This morning, following the collapse of his nuclear talks with his dictatorial pal in Pyongyang, Trump went quite a bit further.
“Well, you know, the military exercises, I gave that up quite a while ago because it costs us $100 million every time we do it. We fly these massive bombers in from Guam. And when I first started, a certain general said, ‘Oh, yes, sir, we fly them in from Guam. It’s right next door.’ Well, right next door is seven hours away. And then they come and they drop millions of dollars of bombs, and then they go back and –
“But we would spend — I mean, we spent hundreds of millions of dollars on those exercises, and I hated to see it. I thought it was unfair.
“So those exercises are very expensive. And I was telling the generals – I said, ‘Look, you know, exercising is fun and it’s nice and they play the war games.’ And I’m not saying it’s not necessary, because at some levels it is, but at other levels it’s not. But it’s a very, very expensive thing. And you know, we do have to think about that too.”
He did not appear to be kidding.
It’s worth taking a moment to set the record straight. For example, when Trump referred to the exercises as being “unfair,” he meant with regards to South Korea paying the United States – because in this president’s mind, everything is a transaction.
But even putting that side, according to the Pentagon, military training exercises with our South Korean allies cost $14 million. To you and me, that’s a lot of money, but for the federal government of the world’s preeminent superpower, it is not a considerable expense. Indeed, the White House wanted to spend more than that on a parade, and the administration already spends more than that on Trump’s trips to his for-profit social club in south Florida.
It’s also not, as Trump insisted this morning, $100 million.
But making matters just a little worse was Trump’s assertion that the exercises are “fun” and “nice.” It’s unsettling to think about, but the president may have heard the phrase “war games,” and concluded that they are actual games – as if the Department of Defense is engaging in recreational activities when it holds training sessions in the Pacific with our allies.
Whether Trump is comically ignorant or perhaps peddling nonsense to rationalize a strategic mistake is unclear. Either way, the president had several months to come up with decent talking points to defend his own policy, and if this is the best he could do, it suggests there is no good defense.