Ever since Donald Trump launched his campaign for president last summer, he has linked himself closely to the cause of veterans he believes have been mistreated by the federal government. Most recently, he has pledged to headline a high-profile fundraiser in Des Moines on behalf of the Wounded Warrior Project instead of attending a potentially crucial Republican debate on Thursday prior to the Iowa caucuses. Trump has scheduled his fundraiser to air opposite the Fox News-hosted debate.
According the Trump, the event has drawn the interest of at least two of his 2016 rivals (with Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum subsequently confirming their attendance), and threatens to seriously hamstring the ratings of the conservative cable news network, which he has been publicly hammering for months. The GOP front-runner has refused to participate in Thursday's debate because he claims that the network and its host and moderator Megyn Kelly are biased against him.
But increased attention to Trump's most recent gambit for veterans has renewed scrutiny of his record. A public relations manager for the Wounded Warrior Project told NBC News on Thursday that they were "not aware of any fundraising efforts on our behalf with Mr. Donald Trump." Last month, when Trump faced a similar stand-off with a network (CNN) over whether to appear at a debate, he demanded that the network donate $5 million in ad revenue to wounded veterans or he wouldn't show up. Ultimately, Trump appeared at the December 15 debate, and there is no record of any donation being made. “I don’t want to take the chance of hurting my campaign,” he told The Washington Post at the time.
Trump's decision to draw veterans into the debate over debates has provoked angry rebukes from veterans (and some prominent conservatives) on social media and elsewhere:
“Let me put this in language Donald Trump understands,” said Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairman of the progressive veterans group VoteVets.org, in a statement released to MSNBC. “You’re a loser. You’re a third-rate politician, who clearly doesn’t understand issues, and is so scared of Megyn Kelly exposing it that you’re looking to use veterans to protect you from facing her questions."
This is not the first time Trump has rankled members of that community on the campaign trail.
The real estate mogul caused an uproar last July when he questioned whether Sen. John McCain, a military veteran and a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, was actually a hero. Last September, he appeared on board the USS Iowa, ostensibly to reveal his national security strategy if he were elected president, although he never did. He was hosted by an organization called Veterans for a Strong America, which sold tickets to the event priced as high as $1,000 apiece, and which appears to have been comprised of just one guy, rather than a viable group of veterans.
That same month, he was mocked for claiming in a new book that he "always felt that I was in the military" because he attended a rigorous military boarding school for five years as a youth. And the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), which represents over 150,000 vets, has said recently they will refuse any donations from Trump.
Meanwhile, The New York Daily News has reportedly unearthed a letter Trump wrote in 1991, imploring the then-chairman of the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Cities, John Dearie, to crack down on disabled veterans working as vendors along Fifth Ave in Manhattan.
“While disabled veterans should be given every opportunity to earn a living, is it fair to do so to the detriment of the city as a whole or its tax paying citizens and businesses?” Trump allegedly wrote. “Do we allow Fifth Ave., one of the world’s finest and most luxurious shopping districts, to be turned into an outdoor flea market, clogging and seriously downgrading the area?”
According the Daily News, Trump spoke out critically about veterans again in 2004 when Michael Bloomberg, possibly a soon-to-be presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, was mayor of New York City. In a letter to Bloomberg, Trump allegedly accused street peddlers of posing as vets outside of his luxurious Trump Tower, according to the Daily News.
Trump has been widely criticized by veteran's groups for not providing specifics about what he would do to address the concerns and challenges of the veteran community -- short of trashing the job the Obama administration has done. “We’re going to take care of those wounded warriors and we’re going to take care of our vets better than anybody," he said on the USS Wisconsin last October. "[My] plan will ensure our veterans get the care they need, wherever and whenever they need it."
However, the only specific policy shift he outlined was that he would support allowing veterans to seek medical care covered by Medicare from non-VA affiliated hospitals in a competitive marketplace and that he would fire "the corrupt and incompetent VA executives who let our veterans down."
The Trump campaign website lists "goals" for the VA (referred to as Veteran's Administration, instead of the proper Department of Veterans Affairs) that expand on the remarks the candidate has made in public. His plan, which lacks specific financial details, calls for an increase in funding for the treatment of PTSD and other mental health challenges, assistance with job placement for veterans, better support for female soldiers, who are currently deprived of OB-GYN services at many VA facilities.
Still, a number of veterans and their allies have argued that Trump is out of touch at best and opportunistic at worst when it comes to his rhetoric on veterans. “Donald Trump is not a leader in veterans’ philanthropy, unless he’s donated a lot of money that nobody knows about,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and chief executive of IAVA, told the New York Times last summer. “We were founded in New York. We are headquartered in New York. I’ve been here 10 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever even seen Donald Trump.”
According to a Forbes report published in December 2015, Trump's foundation donated up to $5.5 million between 2009 and 2013, and only $57,000 of that money went directly to veterans organizations. Since 2010, Trump has donated just $35,000 to veterans groups, according to the foundation’s 990 forms, NBC News reported. The Trump campaign put out documentation on Thursday detailing his charitable giving, putting the figure at $1.7 million. Trump is worth anywhere between $4 to $10 billion.
Of course, not all vets are skeptical about Trump's intentions. First Sgt. Todd Landen, a 22-year Army veteran who attended a Trump rally in Sioux City, Iowa last fall and was directly addressed by the candidate, told CNN at the time: "Every time I've seen Donald Trump, he's mentioned veterans. I haven't seen that from every candidate."