In an apparent response to increasing questions about why he had not yet visited service members in combat zones, President Donald Trump on Wednesday made an unannounced trip to Iraq.
“President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced via Twitter on Wednesday afternoon.
Trump during his Thanksgiving golfing vacation hinted he could soon visit a combat zone, but the White House had not made public any plans. As has become normal operating procedure for such visits, the White House disclosed his whereabouts only after Air Force One safely landed in Iraq and Trump was on the ground at al-Asad Air Base northwest of Baghdad.
Trump told service members gathered for his visit that he has no plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, and intends to use U.S. forces there to strike the Islamic State terrorist group if necessary. “If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard, they really won’t know what the hell happened,” he said.
“Credit where credit is due — after two years, dozens of excuses and tons of public pressure, Donald Trump has finally visited Americans deployed to a combat zone,” said Will Fischer, an Iraq War veteran with the liberal group VoteVets. “But, make no mistake, he had to be forced into doing what is right and what his job is.”
Air Force One apparently left Joint Base Andrews at about midnight, passing over the U.K. and then Hungary en route to an after-dark landing in Iraq, according to amateur photographers and hobbyist trackers of military aircraft.
Trump boasted during his 2016 campaign that he was “the most militaristic” person ever, and would be the best candidate for service members — despite his history of having avoided the Vietnam War through education deferments and then a medical exemption for bone spurs in his heels. He joked in 1997 that his “personal Vietnam” was avoiding sexually transmitted diseases from all the women he slept with in the 1970s, saying on the Howard Stern radio show, “I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
In recent months, Trump has faced mounting criticism for his handling of military issues since becoming commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Trump went nearly two years without visiting a combat zone — something previous presidents did as a matter of course. Barack Obama visited Afghanistan within a few months of taking office in 2009, and George W. Bush visited troops in Baghdad over Thanksgiving in 2003. One former White House official told HuffPost on condition of anonymity that Trump had not wanted to go because of fears for his safety. That official joked on Wednesday of an added benefit he saw from the long, secret flight to Iraq, “Best news, no tweeting.”
The president acknowledged those fears to reporters traveling with him Wednesday. “If you would have seen what we had to go through in the darkened plane, with all windows closed, with no light anywhere. Pitch black. I’ve been on many airplanes. All types and shapes and sizes,” he said. “So did I have a concern? Yes, I had a concern.”
Trump, though, has many other points of friction with service members beyond his fear of traveling under heavy guard to where they must live and work and fight for months and years at a time.
Trump has made repeated false claims about his accomplishments for service members. For instance, he has regularly claimed that he was responsible for the passage of a law that lets veterans use private doctors if they cannot get prompt care at Veterans Affairs clinics and hospitals. He has also claimed that his military budget is the largest ever. In fact, the Veterans Choice Act was passed under Obama, not Trump, and Obama had bigger military budgets in 2010 and 2011, even without accounting for inflation.
This past November, when Trump visited France for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, he chose not to visit an American military cemetery or any other war memorial because it was raining. Instead, he stayed indoors at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris, even as other foreign leaders braved the elements to visit memorial sites. He did visit a different cemetery on the day he left Paris, but upon his return to Washington, Trump failed to visit Arlington National Cemetery on the observed Veterans’ Day holiday.
Upon his return to Washington, Trump failed to visit Arlington National Cemetery on the observed Veterans’ Day holiday.
And to cap it off, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned last week over Trump’s hasty decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria. In his resignation letter, Mattis criticized Trump’s antagonistic relationship with longtime allies but apparent friendship with adversaries. Trump on Sunday effectively fired Mattis by announcing via Twitter that Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would replace Mattis on Jan. 1 as acting secretary.
Mattis’ resignation has triggered sharp criticism even from Republicans who ordinarily support Trump, both in Congress and more generally. Trump’s overall standing with service members was barely above water even before Mattis’ departure.
According to an October poll by The Military Times, Trump is viewed unfavorably by 43 percent of active-duty service members surveyed and favorably by 44 percent. Further, 31 percent view him very unfavorably, compared with almost 24 percent who view him very favorably.
The new poll represents an erosion of support among active-duty military members since Trump’s election, when he enjoyed a 46 percent approval rating versus 37 percent disapproval.
After three hours on the ground in Iraq, the Trumps and Air Force One took off for Germany, where they arrived at Ramstein Air Base in the middle of the night local time so the president and Melania Trump could visit U.S. troops there as well. They are scheduled to return to Washington on Thursday morning.