For the second straight year as president, President Donald Trump chose not to visit American service members deployed around the world on Thanksgiving and instead spoke to them via teleconference from his private, for-profit country club in Palm Beach, Florida.
“Not surprised. He’s been avoiding them since the mid-’60s,” said Will Fischer, an Iraq War veteran with the liberal group VoteVets, referring to Trump’s avoidance of service during the Vietnam War.
Trump sat in a chandeliered room with gold ceilings and read from a script before conversing with several of them on issues ranging from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to whether the United States was getting “ripped off” on trade agreements.
“We don’t see any issues in terms of trade right now,” a Coast Guard commander stationed in Bahrain said, sounding somewhat puzzled.
As he did on Tuesday while leaving the White House for his Thanksgiving vacation, Trump hinted that he might visit troops in a forward combat zone. “We’re going to do some interesting things. We’ll be doing some very interesting things,” he told reporters invited by the White House to watch Trump’s teleconference from his members-only Mar-a-Lago club.
He added that he knew when he would be going but would not say. “I can’t tell you. You’re the last people I can tell,” he told reporters.
Whether Trump ever visits any troops overseas, though, is far from guaranteed. Trump has made numerous promises that he has failed to honor.
He pledged that he would release his tax returns if he ran for president, for instance, but has refused to do so since he announced his campaign three years ago. He promised hundreds of times during his campaign that he would build a wall along the southwestern border and force Mexico to pay for it, but in his first two years, has not broached the topic a single time with the Mexican president’s office.
Further, Trump has long been clear about his deep concern for his personal safety. During his 2015 visit to the Conservative Political Action Conference in a suburb of Washington, D.C., he was accompanied by at least a half dozen private bodyguards, back when he was merely a reality television host and golf course developer. Other speakers, including sitting senators and governors, traveled with either no security at all or one or two state police agents.
During the 2016 campaign, upon seeing news of a suicide bombing in Iraq on television, Trump was asked to name the most dangerous place he has ever visited. After joking “Brooklyn,” he replied that the United States had extremely unsafe places of its own.
“There are places in America that are among the most dangerous in the world. You go to places like Oakland. Or Ferguson. The crime numbers are worse. Seriously,” he told The New York Times.
And The Washington Post reported this week that Trump does not want to visit combat zones because he fears for his life.
The White House on Thursday did not respond to a query about that report. But those fears, if true, appear consistent with Trump’s history. While he has claimed to be pro-military for decades, he avoided service in Vietnam using a string of education deferments and then claimed a medical exemption because of bone spurs in his heels.
He later described that period as a difficult time because of the danger of contracting sexually transmitted diseases from the women he was sleeping with. “It is my personal Vietnam,” he told radio host Howard Stern in 1997. “I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
More recently, Trump has made a habit of attacking military veterans and families when they have criticized him.
He insulted former POW and Arizona Sen. John McCain, saying that he preferred those who had not been captured. Trump insulted Gold Star parents whose Muslim son was killed in 2004 in Iraq while saving those under his command. And just this week, Trump falsely stated that retired Adm. Bill McRaven, the decorated Navy SEAL whose team killed Sept. 11 terrorist Osama bin Laden, was a Hillary Clinton supporter. Trump then criticized McRaven for not having gotten bin Laden sooner.
Trump has made but a single visit to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to meet the returning remains of fallen service members, very early in his presidency, and has refused to attend another one after a parent of a killed Special Forces member berated him at the arrival ceremony.
Two major accomplishments he boasts of — providing record-high budgets for the military and passing a law to let veterans see local private doctors — are false.
President Barack Obama approved a $721 billion defense budget in 2010 and one for $717 billion in 2011. Both were higher than the $716 billion budget Trump repeatedly brags about for this year — even before adjusting for inflation. And the Veterans Choice Program that Trump claims he passed was actually also passed under Obama, in 2014.
Obama made four visits to Afghanistan during his two terms and flew to Iraq in the first months of his presidency, even though he campaigned against the war there.
In the days preceding the recent midterm elections, Trump deployed 5,000 active-duty troops to the border with Mexico to string up barbed wire against what he described as an “invasion” of Central American refugees seeking asylum. He also has not visited those troops, even though they remain separated from their families over the Thanksgiving holidays because of what critics have called a political stunt.
And after the elections, he skipped a visit to an American cemetery in France commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I because of rain and fog. Two days later, back in Washington on the observed Veterans Day holiday, he chose not to visit Arlington National Cemetery and remained at the White House tweeting instead.
Wrapping up his session with reporters Thursday morning, Trump said that he was thankful for how successful he has been as president. “I made a tremendous difference in this country,” he said. “This country is so much stronger now than it was when I took office, and you wouldn’t believe it, and when you see it, we’ve gotten so much stronger, people don’t even believe it.”
Trump followed his teleconference with overseas service members Thursday morning with a brief visit to the Coast Guard station at nearby Lake Worth Inlet before heading to his private, for-profit golf course in West Palm Beach. He arrived there by noon, then headed back across the Intracoastal Waterway to Palm Beach, where he was scheduled to have Thanksgiving dinner.
Although he calls Mar-a-Lago the “southern White House,” it is, in fact, a private country club. Members must pay $200,000 to join — the figure was $100,000 before he became president — but then can on occasion socialize with Trump and, if they choose, take their grievances and desires to him directly, out of sight of the media.