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Why Donald Trump Is Uniquely Unqualified To Speak About Military Service And Sacrifice

Trump continues to show an utter lack of self-awareness when talking about other people's service.

02/08/2016 5:40 AM AEST | Updated 18/02/2017 4:48 AM AEDT

President Donald Trump may have attended a military academy, but he apparently never learned how to pick his battles.

On Thursday, Trump pushed back against reports that his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, had expressed concern about his attacks on the judiciary.

But rather than address the merits of the claims ― that Trump’s barbs at the federal judge who blocked his controversial travel ban were “demoralizing” and “disheartening” ― the president went directly after the source of the reports, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Although Blumenthal faced questions during his 2010 Senate run for mischaracterizing his military service as being “in Vietnam,” he did serve six years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve during the Vietnam War. Blumenthal never saw combat, thanks in part to a series of deferments that allowed him to pursue his studies, but he did wear the uniform.

The same can’t be said of the president.

That must have been lost on Trump, however. That morning, he also attacked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Trump sent out a series of tweets blasting McCain for questioning the success of a military raid in Yemen that led to the death of a U.S. Navy Seal, the loss of a military aircraft and a number of civilian casualties. 

Trump’s insults show a lack of self-awareness, and remind us that he has a rich history of disparaging veterans, service members and their families. Below are some of the most controversial claims he has made about the military ― including statements about his own experiences and those of others. 

Trump fought with a Gold Star family.

Last year, Trump lashed out at a Gold Star family after Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen U.S. soldier, targeted Trump in an impassioned speech at the Democratic National Convention. Trump’s harassment of the Muslim American Khan family drew impassioned rebuttals from both of the Khans, politicians, veterans groups and other military families. It was later reported that Trump didn’t know what a Gold Star family was (the title refers to those who have lost loved ones in war).

Trump claimed that his military prep school was just like going to war. 

“I always thought I was in the military,” Trump told biographer Michael D’Antonio of his time at the New York Military Academy, a private prep school he attended during his teens. Trump said he received more military training in prep school than most actual soldiers did, and he had been required to live under the command of men who had gone on to careers as real officers and soldiers.

“I felt like I was in the military in a true sense,” Trump said. “Because I dealt with the people.”

Trump managed to evade a nationwide draft during the Vietnam War.

According to D’Antonio’s book The Truth About Trump, here’s what happened. 

“I actually got lucky because I had a very high draft number,” [Trump] told a TV interviewer in 2011. “I’ll never forget, that was an amazing period of time in my life.” In fact the lottery was not a factor in his experience. It didn’t occur until fourteen months after he received his medical exemption [for heel spurs], and eighteen months after he’d left Penn. 

When reporters asked Trump about the medical deferment last year, he couldn’t recall which foot had the bone spurs.

“You’ll have to look it up,” he said.

Trump’s campaign later issued a release claiming the spurs were, in fact, in both feet.

Trump once compared his own efforts to avoid sexually transmitted diseases to the Vietnam War.

“It is a dangerous world out there — it’s scary, like Vietnam,” Trump said in a 1997 interview with Howard Stern uncovered by BuzzFeed last year. “Sort of like the Vietnam era. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave solider.”

More than 58,000 Americans died in the actual Vietnam War, including nearly 18,000 who were drafted into service.

Trump claims he’s given away millions of dollars of his own money to Vietnam and Iraq war veterans. But his refusal to release his tax returns makes this impossible to confirm.

As a co-chairman of the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission in 1985, Trump took credit for the construction of a 90,000-square-foot plaza, completed that year. But Trump’s fellow commissioners said he had “been to only two or three out of 20 meetings,” according to a November 1984 report in the Washington Post.

When the Post presented Trump with those allegations, he responded by playing down the military service of others involved in the initiative.

“That’s interesting. I’ll resign then,” said Trump. “They’re very small thinkers. They’re stockbrokers that were in Vietnam and they don’t have it.”

The Vietnam Veterans Plaza eventually named Trump its 2008 honoree of the year, citing the businessman’s $1 million contribution to the project.

A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign did not reply to a request from HuffPost for documentation of Trump’s $1 million for the Vietnam Veterans Plaza.

Trump lobbied for years to have homeless veterans kicked out of their vendors’ stalls on Fifth Avenue.

As Trump sought to build cachet for his properties in the 1990’s, he decided that the street vendors on Fifth Avenue, many of whom were given permits especially for veterans, were a public nuisance.

“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 wrote to the State Assembly in 1991. 

He went on, “Do we allow Fifth Avenue, 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?”

Trump was still at it in 2004, writing to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “Whether they are veterans or not, [the vendors] should not be allowed to sell on this most important and prestigious shopping street.” 

Trump appealed to the mayor, “I hope you can stop this very deplorable situation before it is too late.”

Trump’s business ventures have violated laws intended to protect service members from discrimination due to their military service.

In at least three instances first reported by HuffPost, Trump’s companies have fired, or refused to hire, military reservists over the time constraints required under the terms of their commitments to the armed forces. It is a violation of federal law to penalize an employee for absences caused by military service.

Trump University “dishonored” the memory of a service member killed in Iraq by allegedly swindling his widow.

When Cheryl Lankford’s husband, Jonathan, was killed in Iraq in 2007, she was left scrambling to figure out how to make ends meet as a single mother. Lured by Trump University’s promise of expanding her earning potential, Lankford used a portion of her widow’s benefits to enroll in a $35,000 package of classes. She spoke at the DNC last year to say she’d been scammed.

“By conning me out of the money the military gave me after my husband died, I felt like Trump University was dishonoring Jonathan’s memory,” Lankford said. “I was furious, frightened and, the truth is, I was embarrassed.”

Other veterans have reportedly been caught up in the alleged scam. 

The now-defunct Trump University is currently the subject of a trio of lawsuits from students who claim they were defrauded with false promises of investing “secrets” delivered by Trump’s “hand-picked” instructors.

Trump mocked the sacrifice of one of America’s most admired veterans.

In 2015, Trump mocked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for being shot down over North Vietnam in 1967. As a prisoner of war, McCain spent five years in prison, where he was subjected to torture that left him physically scarred to this day.

“He’s a war hero because he was captured,” Trump said. “I like people who weren’t captured.”

Trump doesn’t have much respect for military expertise.

At a campaign appearance in November, Trump claimed he already possessed all of the knowledge he would need to defeat the so-called Islamic State.

“I know more about ISIS than the generals do,” he said. “Believe me.”

As a candidate, Trump has proposed a plan that would privatize the Veterans Health Administration hospital system ― an idea that received swift and sharp backlash from veterans groups.

Trump’s stumbles on veterans issues are particularly noteworthy given that improving the lot of U.S. veterans is one of the few policy positions his campaign has put down on paper. One way he’d do this is by working to privatize the VA, but few veterans or veterans organizations appear to support the controversial proposal.

Trump has also vowed to create a hotline to field veterans’ complaints about their health care. In a recent speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he said he’d be willing to personally answer these calls as president.

Trump bragged about his personal contribution of $1 million to veterans groups for months. But he hadn’t actually contributed anything.  

As Trump campaigned for president on a pro-veterans platform, questions emerged last year about how much money the candidate had actually donated to veterans charities, after a high-profile fundraiser in January.

In May, four months after Trump claimed he’d personally donated $1 million to charity to help veterans, reporters pressed him for proof. That same day, Trump reportedly cut a check for $1 million to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation.

This story has been updated to reflect Trump’s most recent attacks on former military service members.

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