Military veterans helped sweep Donald Trump to power in 2016, turning out in swing states like Ohio and Florida as Trump vowed to spend vast sums on defense. They have largely stuck with him ever since, even as Trump has repeatedly attacked venerated military leaders.
But as Trump grapples with the scandal over his reported inaction after being briefed on a Russian plot to pay bounties for the killing of US troops, cracks in the relationship are starting to show, with a series of military figures lining up to condemn the president.
Even before news of Russian bounties broke, Trump’s bond with the military appeared to have become fractured. Some veterans and members of the military were horrified by Trump’s pledge to deploy active-duty military forces to anti-racism protests and demonstrations.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try,” said marine general and Trump’s former defense secretary James Mattis in an extraordinary critique of the president in early June.
“Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Since then, things have only gotten worse for Trump.
The New York Times reported on Friday that the Trump administration had ignored intelligence about a Russian plot to offer bounties to Afghan militants to kill US troops. Trump has both called the report, aspects of which have been confirmed by other outlets, a hoax, and at the same time insisted he was not briefed on the Russian plan.
Both the Times and CNN have since reported that the information was included in a daily intelligence briefing in February, although Trump is known to rarely read those briefings. The report of the plot, and Trump’s response, could prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back when it comes to the armed forces. Even Republicans were shocked by the allegations.
“I’m not really sure he absorbs a lot of this stuff,” Representative Paul Cook, a Marine veteran, who represents several military installations, told Associated Press.
“He’s probably thinking about the polls.”
Cook, who is retiring from Congress at the end of his current term, added: “I’m not going to be an apologist for Trump. Trump is Trump.”
As Trump’s response has oscillated between the threat not being credible and him not being made aware of it, some veterans have expressed alarm at the latter explanation – at a president who is not being given, or who is not reading, important briefing documents.
“I think it’s even worse if he didn’t know,” Mikie Sherrill, a Democratic congresswoman from New Jersey, told NJ.com.
“That speaks to a much broader crisis. What is he doing to fulfill his role as commander in chief? How is it that we were briefing allies on this and our own president didn’t know? I don’t have any theories on how that might happen. I can’t fathom it.”
Sherrill added: “If you’re going to put your life on the line for country, you want to have leadership in place that’s going to value your life, and do what they can to protect you,” she says. “That’s the deal. So yeah, it’s very personal to me.”
The sentiment was echoed by Erik Hendriks, whose son was killed in an attack in Afghanistan in April 2019. The attack has been linked to the Russian bounty effort, and Hendricks questioned what Trump and the military knew about the plot in advance.
“When they sign up and they go – any soldier, a Marine, Navy, Air Force, Army – I’m sure they want to believe that the government is 100% in their corner,” Hendriks told Associated Press.
“And if any of this is true, how could a soldier actually believe that anymore? How could this government let one soldier go on patrol out there knowing this is true?”
Hendriks’ mother, Felicia Arculeo, and Shawn Gregoire, the mother of Michael Isaiah Nance, who was killed in the same attack, have demanded an investigation into the Russian bounty plot and the Trump administration, as pressure grows on the president to explain what happened.
“I really want someone to get to the bottom of this,” Gregoire told CNBC. “Even if he was not briefed, what’s happening now?”
Referring to Trump, Gregoire asked: “What are you doing now, now that you know?”
Trump’s immediate response has been to post a series of distressed messages to Twitter, where – despite initially claiming he did not receive intelligence on the Russian plot – he has since attempted to dismiss the concept as a hoax.
The administration is yet to announce action against Russia, which Trump has treated favorably since his election, yet the issue is unlikely to go away. On Wednesday Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, proposed sanctions on Vladimir Putin and other officials for offering bounties to kill US troops.
Historically military members and veterans tend to favor Republican candidates, and Trump’s relationship with the military has so far endured his attacks on military families, and the venom Trump has directed at John McCain, even after the senator died.
That support held in 2018, even as voters flocked to Democrats, when Trump’s Republican party still won 58% of the military vote, but with just four months to go, Trump has found himself immediately targeted over the Russian scandal.
The Lincoln Project, a group of influential anti-Trump Republicans who plan to spend big money advertising against the president during the election campaign, quickly capitalized on Trump’s handling of the alleged bounty plot on Saturday.
“Putin pays the Taliban cash to slaughter our men and women in uniform, and Trump is silent, weak, controlled,” the ad says.
“When Trump tells you he stands by the troops, he’s right – just not our troops.”