President Trump’s first speech to active duty troops since taking office went much the same way his first speech to CIA officers went. He celebrated his political triumph, promised his full support and new resources to wipe out “radical Islamic terrorism” and unleashed one of his trademark tirades against the news media.
Speaking at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida on Monday, Trump gave an abbreviated history of terrorist attacks, from 9/11 to the Paris nightclub attacks to the truck massacre in Nice.
“It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that,” he said. He offered no evidence for the accusation, which flies in the face of round-the-clock news coverage of terrorist violence. But one of his senior advisers has repeatedly referred to a Bowling Green, Ky., terrorist attack that did not happen.
The rhetorical onslaught recalled Trump’s rant against the news media at CIA headquarters one day after his inauguration. “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” he said in those remarks. Trump and his top aides have rarely let a day go by without making similar remarks, which are red meat for his political base.
Like his remarks at the CIA, Trump’s speech in Florida left open some questions of how the new president will interact with major parts of the government’s national security machine.
On the campaign trail, the entrepreneur regularly made comments seen as disparaging military commanders, at one point declaring, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.” He dismissed Sen. John McCain’s military service, saying he preferred veterans who weren’t captured. He did verbal battle with Muslim Gold Star parents who supported his rival, Hillary Clinton. He also called for a return to using torture, which the military opposes. And while he complained of overextending American forces overseas, on at least one occasion he expressed support for sending tens of thousands more U.S. troops to fight the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
Trump has turned to retired generals for key roles in his Cabinet, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. His national security adviser, Mike Flynn, is also a retired general.
But he has also pursued the idea of setting up “safe areas” for Syrian refugees, a step that top military officials have warned could escalate U.S. military involvement in or near the Middle East’s main war zone.
One critical test in the developing relationship between the Pentagon and the White House will be when the military brass delivers a new plan for defeating ISIS, due in late February or early March, according to a Trump directive. It’s not clear whether Trump would embrace a recommendation for more ground troops — if one comes. During the campaign, he boasted that he had a secret plan for defeating the group.
Trump’s remarks came after he had lunch with a group of soldiers serving with U.S. Central Command, which notably oversees America’s military entanglements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, as well as Yemen.
In his formal speech, Trump opened with a look back at Nov. 8. “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” he said, apparently touting his support among military voters. “I saw those numbers, and you liked me, and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”
He also promised to make a “historic financial investment in the armed forces of the United States,” promised to wipe out “radical Islamic terrorism,” and criticized NATO partners that have not met the alliance’s commitment to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.
“We have your back every hour, every day now and always. That also means getting our allies to pay their fair share. Been very unfair to us,” he said.
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