President Donald Trump led his remarks to U.S. military troops Wednesday in Iraq with an order: “Let’s have a good time.” What followed was a combat zone version of one of his signature campaign-style rallies.
“I don’t know if you folks are aware of what’s happening,” the commander in chief told troops assembled to hear his remarks at Al-Asad Air Base, referring to a government shutdown that now is in its sixth day. Lawmakers typically try to refrain from criticizing a president when he is on foreign soil. But this president could not resist criticizing Democrats on Iraqi soil.
“We want to have strong borders in the United States. The Democrats don’t want to let us have strong borders, only for one reason. You know why? Because I want it,” he said before jokingly suggesting reverse psychology might deliver his southern border barrier.
“I think I’ll say, ‘I don’t want the wall. And then they’re going to give it to me,” he said of Democrats. “Tell Nancy Pelosi, ‘I don’t want the wall.’ ‘Oh, we want the wall,’” he quipped about his fictional scenario. “And then we get the wall.”
That scenario is as unlikely as Trump turning his war-zone remarks into a campaign rally. Here are four takeaways from the president’s first trip to visit American troops in a combat zone.
Border Wall Month
A running joke since Trump took over is that every week at his White House is “infrastructure week.” His staff has tried several theme weeks intended to build public and congressional support for a legislative package to upgrade America’s roads, airports, bridges, tunnels and seaports; that kind of bill was a 2016 Trump campaign promise and the idea has broad bipartisan support.
Before any push for an infrastructure deal next year, Trump and Democratic leaders will have to come up with a border security funding deal to reopen nine Cabinet-level agencies and other federal offices that are shuttered during the shutdown. Trump made clear in Iraq he is eager to take on Democrats over his border barrier.
He again declined to spell out what he might agree to to end the funding crisis, but he made clear he intends to press the issue and sees it as good politics for him and Republicans. To that end, Trump announced he will be “going to the wall” before his second State of the Union address, to participate in a “groundbreaking” event for construction of a section of structure along the border.
Trump channels Powell
The sitting commander in chief does not talk much about Colin Powell, who as an Army four-star general was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush during the Persian Gulf War. In the run-up to that conflict, something called the “Powell Doctrine” became popular in Washington strategic circles and went mainstream ahead of the war to oust Saddam Hussein’s forces from neighboring Kuwait.
“I’ve never talked about overwhelming force. I’ve always talked about decisive force, meaning you go to the point of decision and that’s where you apply decisive force,” Powell told Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2001.
Trump did not name Powell or the doctrine that was branded with his name on Wednesday or in other comments over the long Christmas weekend, but he certainly signaled again that he is a believer in using, in the former secretary of State and national security adviser’s words, “decisive force.”
“America shouldn’t be doing the fighting for every nation on Earth, not being reimbursed, in many cases, at all. If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price — and sometimes that’s also a monetary price — so we’re not the suckers of the world,” he said. “We could use this as a base, if we wanted to do something in Syria. If we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and hard, they really won’t know what the hell happened.”
How the Trump White House handles events large and small always raises eyebrows. The Iraq visit was no different.
The president admitted he “had concerns” about going, first for “the institution of the presidency” and second for “the first lady,” who accompanied him on Air Force One. He seemed upset about “what we had to go through,” including a “darkened plane with all window closed with no light anywhere — pitch black.”
But where previous administrations have tried to mask commanders in chief visits to war zones by portraying a business-as-usual posture at the executive mansion, the Trump team did the opposite. The press offices were not staffed — one remained dark all day — and the social media team did not schedule any tweets from the president’s personal or official accounts.
Air Force One was spotted over the United Kingdom and Hungary, and photographed over the former. Later, a military chaplain revealed he was at the western Iraqi base with Seal Team Five during an exchange with Trump, and the White House released photographs and videos that experts said revealed typically classified special operations forces deployments there. The president’s critics pounced, turning a bipartisan moment into yet another political fracas.
“After Trump visited Iraq, he posted a video to his Twitter account that may have compromised operational security and violated procedures designed to safeguard the identities of U.S. special operation forces, especially when deployed to a combat zone,” VoteVets tweeted.
After Trump visited Iraq, he posted a video to his Twitter account that may have compromised operational security and violated procedures designed to safeguard the identities of U.S. special operation forces, especially when deployed to a combat zone. https://t.co/UOQjskCJsn
— VoteVets (@votevets) December 27, 2018
The Democratic Coalition group, which describes itself as “the nation’s largest grassroots Resistance organization,” noted this in a tweet: “Current and former Defense Department officials told Newsweek that the information is almost always classified and is a violation of operational security.”
— Democratic Coalition (@TheDemCoalition) December 27, 2018
Another false statement
Trump was praised by GOP and Democratic lawmakers for making his first combat zone visit. But some of the statements he made while there overshadowed that praise.
“You haven’t gotten one in more than 10 years,” he told the troops of a 2.6 percent military pay raise he signed into law earlier this year. “I got you a big one.” His own Department of Defense has a page on its website that shows this was a false statement.
Troops have gotten annual raises ranging from 0.5 percent to 3.9 percent each year since 2007, according to the Pentagon data.