ANALYSIS | President Donald Trump — in a Pentagon address that included digs at Democrats and a border wall pitch — warned potential foes like Iran that the United States is a “good player,” but could quickly become the dirtiest player in the game if provoked.
The commander in chief arrived at the Pentagon Thursday morning for remarks, ostensibly about a Defense Department review of the country’s missile defense arsenal and his administration’s plan to expand and upgrade it. But just like Monday while addressing farmers at a conference in New Orleans, the president spent about half his remarks bashing congressional Democrats, describing a bleak situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and lobbying for a “steel” border barrier.
“The party has been hijacked by the open borders fringe,” Trump said of the Democratic Party in the five-sided military building, where past presidents have attempted to strike bipartisan messages about uniting around national security needs.
“Without a strong broder,” he said, the United States will be rendered “defenseless” and “unprotected.” He warned of “more caravans” of Central American migrants he claims are massing and heading toward the U.S.-Mexico boundary, composed of “thousands and thousands of people.”
“We need strong borders. We need strong barriers and walls. Nothing else is going to work,” he claimed inside the Defense Department. The agency does not have legal or budgetary purview over the continental United States or either the southern or northern borders.
“Everybody knows it. Everybody is saying it,” he said in his signature fact-bending style. Both are false statements, quickly undone by congressional Democrats’ refusal to give into his $5.7 billion demand for what he now calls an “artistically designed steel slats” barrier.
“It’s just a question of time,” he said, leaving out the context of the ongoing border wall standoff that has a quarter of the federal government closed and 800,000 federal workers without paychecks, as well as any plan he might have to resolve the impasse.
Just as the Farm Bureau’s centennial conference was an odd setting for a hardline immigration speech, so too was the Pentagon auditorium. But that didn’t stop the president, who talked of “drugs flowing” across the border, despite his own Department of Homeland Security’s data that offers a less-gloomy assessment.
“Congressional Democrats refuse to approve border security,” he said. But Democrats have voted for bills in recent weeks that include billions for border security tools and personnel, just not Trump’s desired wall.
And during weekend meetings with Vice President Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen earlier this month, senior Democratic aides provided the White House with a list of such tools they would support in any shutdown-ending package. Pence said he then talked Trump into blessing what were millions of dollars in Democratic demands.
Once Trump got to the reason he took the short drive to the Pentagon, his message was hawkish.
“There are some very bad players out there. And we’re a good player,” he said. “But we can be far worse than anybody, if need be.”
Call it Trump’s “Ric Flair Doctrine.” He is a mostly retired professional wrestler, who usually performed as a heel and relished in reminding fans he would do whatever it took to win, even bending the sport’s perceived rules, because he was the “dirtiest player in the game.”
The president warned that other countries, including Iran, are “expanding their missile arsenals” and “getting bigger and stronger.” But he had a few messages for them, including: “And we’re getting bigger and stronger, in every way.”
“The world is changing and we’re going to change must faster than the rest of the world,” he said, even though very little about the Pentagon’s cumbersome and much-maligned weapons development and purchasing system allows the military to alter its arsenals on a dime.
That “change” was summarized in earlier remarks by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former defense executive of the missile-producing Boeing Corporation, who said: “Writ large, [competitors] are not developing new fighter and bomber aircraft. They’re developing missiles.”
“China and Russia are adding to their arsenals” with “new and sophisticated” projectiles. And both North Korean and Iranian missiles “remain a concern,” he said.
His boss picked up on those warnings minutes later, when he noted Iran’s government recently tried to send a craft into space. And though that test failed, Trump warned it showed Tehran could one day develop a missile that could “maybe reach the United States.” But, he vowed, “We’re not going to have that happen.”
Yet, buried in the hawkish remarks came a diplomatic moment — even an olive branch — pointed at the Iranian capital.
“I do believe they want to talk,” Trump said.
But he quickly returned to his saber-rattling message, promising to “terminate” enemy missiles so they “find no sanctuary on earth or in the skies above.”