Donald Trump reached out to the nation’s veterans Sunday, promising better health care, a stronger military and new donations to veterans causes as he spoke at the annual Rolling Thunder demonstration in Washington.
“We’re not winning now. … We certainly don’t win for our veterans,” the presumptive Republican presidential nominee said, repeating one of his signature lines to thousands of bikers gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. “We are going to start winning so much. We are going to win, win, win.”
The cheers and applause Trump received from the veterans on motorcycles Sunday belied some bumps in his relationship with the voting bloc after his remarks about prisoners of war and his failure to turn over all the money he raised for veterans in January.
Trump holds a 9 percentage point lead with with veterans over Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, according to a poll of more than 1,600 veterans conducted May 13-24 by Morning Consult. Four years ago, Republican Mitt Romney led President Barack Obama by 24 points among veterans, a Gallup survey showed.
Dressed in a dark suit and a red “Make America Great” baseball cap, Trump ran through many of his campaign themes, pledging to build a wall along the Mexican border and mocking Clinton. Unlike at other rallies, however, Sunday’s event drew no significant protest, perhaps out of respect for the audience.
Trump said he had expected the crowd to be the size of one for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, stretching from the Lincoln Memorial down to the Washington monument. In reality, a few thousand people gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and around the sides to watch Trump speak from a small tented stage in front of the Reflecting Pool.
Trump said he saw thousands of people on his way to the event and complained that road blocks and other barriers prevented them from getting down to the memorial. Some veterans in the crowd said it was unclear when he would be speaking.
In his speech, Trump promised to end long lines at veterans hospitals and said he would have more to say about his donations to veterans groups on Tuesday. “We’re having a big press conference,” he told the crowd.
Trump’s comments come after he has been under scrutiny in the media for failing to donate millions he said he raised for veterans in January at a fundraiser he held in lieu of attending a Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News.
At the time, Trump said he raised $6 million for veterans, including $1 million from his own pocket. Reports since then have indicated the total was less and that Trump had yet to donate any of the money to veterans charities until this week, when he gave his $1 million to the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation .
Trump also angered some veterans when he insulted one of the most famous prisoners of war , former Republican presidential nominee and Arizona Sen. John McCain. Trump said McCain was only a war hero “because he was captured.”
Max Lorenz, a Vietnam veteran from Peekskill, New York, said he’s been attending Rolling Thunder on and off for about eight years and that it was nice to see Trump show up this year.
“I haven’t seen a president here yet — any president,” he said. Trump “is a shoe in, so I’m already calling him president. So he’s one coming here and addressing because he cares about vets.”
“And when I got out of Vietnam, he donated to the Vietnam veterans right off the bat,” Lorenz added. “He didn’t take any credit for it. I never forgot that.”
In the more than a dozen years Vietnam veteran Jim Demayo of Syracuse, New York, and his friend Bill Powers of Austin, Texas, have been attending Rolling Thunder there’s never been a politician of any kind addressing the crowd, they said.
“When (George W.) Bush was president, he used to fly over; he acknowledged us,” Demayo said. “When (Barack) Obama became president, he said ‘all of this is a waste of time’ … because he didn’t give a damn about the military.”
Asked if he was a Trump supporter, Demayo said, “I am definitely not a Hillary supporter, so you figure it out.”
Powers, who decided to back Trump after watching him in the GOP debates, said he liked Trump’s speech Sunday but wished he would elaborate more on how he plans to fix things. “I believe he will,” though, he added.
Liam McNicholas said he was pleasantly surprised with Trump’s speech Sunday but hadn’t been convinced to vote for him. “He talked a lot more on issues this time,” than in an earlier rally he’d attended in Pittsburgh, where McNicholas said he “just kind of talked about, you know, his success and his friends. And in the last five minutes, he talked about the wall. And that was it.”
Lisa Kunkle of Indiana, Pennsylvania, who attended Sunday’s event with her Army vet husband, said she’s a Trump supporter. “I think we need somebody who’s going to shake things up and get America back to the powerhouse it was,” she said.
The annual Rolling Thunder event started in 1988. Vietnam veteran Ray Manzo organized the first demonstration because he was bothered by reports of prisoners of war who were left behind in Vietnam and soldiers whose remains were not being returned to the United States for a proper burial.
The event has since evolved into a larger demonstration showing support for all current and former armed service members.