Politics

Awkward Moments from Donald Trump's Veterans Day Do-Over

VA secretary managed to out-Trump embellishment-prone Trump

President Donald Trump talks to Chairman, President and CEO of Lockheed Martin Marillyn Hewson (right) and Director and Chief Test Pilot Alan Norman in front of a highly visible F-35 fighter jet during the "2018 Made in America Product Showcase" in July at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS | President Donald Trump got around Thursday to commemorating Veterans Day on American soil, four days after the actual holiday and after as many days holed up in and lashing out from the White House.

Trump did speak Sunday at a rain-soaked Suresnes American Cemetery and Memorial in France, where U.S. soldiers who died in World War I are buried, and he visited graves there. But he canceled a Saturday visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial because of bad weather, later blaming the Secret Service.

He arrived back at the White House Sunday night, too late for any official Veterans Day events. But this Thursday, it was Veterans Day at the White House — four days after the holiday and three after the official observance day. The president, joined by first lady Melania Trump, visited a Marine Corps barracks near Capitol Hill, where he chatted with rank-and-file Marines and then their leadership.

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After a quick motorcade ride back to the executive mansion through an autumn snow and ice storm, the president delivered remarks on helping the country’s veterans. But, as has become customary in this White House, the event featured some awkward and memorable moments. Here are a few highlights.

‘Jesuit limbo’

Other than the timing itself — which felt like a mulligan after the president was criticized for not at least going to Arlington National Cemetery on Monday — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie offered the first odd moments.

His predecessor, David Shulkin, was fired. As the drama surrounding Trump’s first nominee to replace Shulkin, White House doctor and Navy Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson played out, Wilkie was the department’s acting boss. Whether he intended to or not, Wilkie, in just a few words Thursday, cast doubt on the ability of any acting agency secretary to have any sway inside their departments.

“Now for those of you who have had your heads beaten in by the Jesuit fathers, as I have had, being the acting secretary is like being in Jesuit limbo. You are, but you’re not,” Wilkie quipped.

Leaving aside the awkward comment about a Catholic church, with that attendant baggage, Wilkie might have just made life even harder for acting secretaries — including acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and any others Trump might create if he carries out a post-midterms purge of his Cabinet.

‘Centerpiece’

Candidate Trump talked about the dismal state of veterans’ care a lot on the campaign trail. In fact, during his remarks Thursday, the president said he couldn’t recall a single 2016 speech in which he failed to mention veterans.

Wilkie, however, remembers things differently.

“There’s never been a presidential campaign … where one of the candidates made [military] veterans the centerpiece of his campaign,” he said. In contrast, his boss said a few minutes later that veterans’ issues were “a very major part,” but not the main plank.

Somehow, the VA secretary managed to out-Trump Trump, a man known to embellish.

‘Goodbye, everybody’

As usual, Trump’s remarks featured the usual ticking off of some accomplishments since he took office. He dropped in his belief that the country has “the greatest economy we have had in many, many years. … It’s booming.”

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Soon it was onto a veterans’ bill he signed into law and some statistics he says show he is the most pro-vets president in American history. In fact, Trump suggested — jokingly — maybe he could move onto other matters.

“Goodbye, everybody,” he said with a wave as he took a step away from his podium. “I figured I did so much I could leave now.” He stayed, saying his administration would never stop working on behalf of veterans.

‘They’re stealth’

Trump managed to shoehorn in a mention of his favorite new U.S. fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin-made F-35. He talked about it a lot on the midterms campaign trail.

“They’re stealth. You can’t see it,” he said Thursday. 

Of course, the fighter isn’t actually invisible, like Wonder Woman’s plane. It’s just designed to evade radar. The Pentagon certainly sees it, and its long list of technical snafus and an ever-swelling price tag before it can be deployed on a wide scale. 

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