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Why Trump's absurd claims about a revered Navy admiral matter

It's the John McCain/POW moment all over again: Trump limits his praise to soldiers who weren't captured, and his respect for four-star admirals is conditional.
Image: President Trump speaks at swearing in ceremonies for new CIA Director Haspel
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at swearing in ceremonies for new CIA Director Gina Haspel at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency in...

Retired Adm. Bill McRaven, the former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, is perhaps best known to Americans as the Navy SEAL who oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. McRaven is also recognized as a revered veteran who's publicly shared some concerns about Donald Trump's presidency.

Last year, for example, the retired four-star admiral described Trump's attacks on the press as possibly "the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime." Three months ago, after Trump said he'd revoke the security clearances of some of his critics, McRaven wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post urging the president to revoke his security clearance, too, explaining that he would consider it "an honor" to stand alongside those "who have spoken up against your presidency."

Trump responded at the time, "I don't know McRaven." Evidently, three months later, he thinks he knows all that he needs to know about the revered admiral.

During a "Fox News Sunday" interview that aired yesterday, Chris Wallace discussed Trump's condemnations of the free press, and pointed to McRaven's concerns. The president dismissed the celebrated admiral as a "Hillary Clinton fan" whose opinion should be dismissed.

TRUMP: OK, he's a Hilary Clinton backer and an Obama backer and frankly --WALLACE: He's a Navy SEAL --TRUMP: Wouldn't it have been nice if we got Osama Bin Laden a lot sooner than that, wouldn't it have been nice?

The president then added that the al Qaeda leader was living in Pakistan "in what they considered a nice mansion -- I don't know, I've seen nicer."

Let's get a few things straight. First, McRaven's opinions matter regardless of how he voted in 2016, but he did not endorse Clinton. Yesterday, after Trump's whining, the retired admiral told CNN's Jake Tapper, "I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else. I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for."

In other words, Trump's comments were factually wrong.

Second, Trump's comments were also dumb. McRaven had a lengthy and heroic military career, spanning decades of service to the United States. Cadet Bone Spurs may not understand this, but the retired admiral's record is one that commands respect and gratitude, not cheap attacks.

Third, note the way in which the Republican president uses insults to deflect from real issues. Chris Wallace asked a fair question about Trump's denigration of the free press and referenced McRaven's concerns to bolster the significance of the line of inquiry. The president could've taken the opportunity to defend his position and explain his support for First Amendment principles, but instead he instinctively lashed out at a retired four-star admiral.

Fourth, the idea that Trump would complain about the speed with which U.S. forces killed the 9/11 mastermind is ridiculous, even by Trump standards. Indeed, the whining doesn't even make sense: McRaven wasn't responsible for acquiring the intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts; he was responsible for executing the mission ordered by President Obama.

But even if we put all of that aside, we're left with an inescapable realization that Trump's support for our military is limited to those in the military who agree with him. It's the John McCain/POW moment all over again: Trump limits his praise to soldiers who weren't captured, and his respect for four-star admirals is conditional on whether or not they say nice things about him.

It's the latest in a series of reminders that Trump sees himself as the president of his allies, not the nation.

Postscript: Former White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, an MSNBC contributor, raised a good point: "To summarize, Trump has attacked the President who ordered the bin Laden operation, taken away the security clearance of the [White House] official ([John] Brennan) who helped orchestrate it, and now disparaged the commander and troops who got the job done."