Trump's Remarks About Military Service Could Play A Role In Swing States

Sep 16, 2020
Originally published on September 16, 2020 4:53 pm
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Members of the military have largely voted Republican over the last few decades, but there are new questions about whether President Trump could lose that support. Democrats are seizing on comments Trump allegedly made in which he disparaged military service. Meanwhile, the GOP thinks national security voters will stick with the party. NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine believes reports of President Trump's negative comments about service members and controversial decisions as commander in chief will cost him.

TIM KAINE: He's jeopardizing some support that he might have had in the past by this just pattern of bad comments and behavior.

GRISALES: Kaine says an early clue came in 2015, when then-candidate Trump attacked late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's time as a Vietnam prisoner of war. Trump didn't serve and received several deferments.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I like people that weren't captured - OK? - I hate to tell you.

GRISALES: In recent weeks, The Atlantic magazine and a new book by journalist Bob Woodward documented claims of Trump disparaging the military. He denies it, recently telling reporters it's the Pentagon's leaders consumed with war who don't like him.

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TRUMP: I'm not saying the military is in love with me. The soldiers are.

GRISALES: But a recent Military Times poll found Trump's support slipping with the troops in a preference for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Gene Taylor is a former Democratic House member who worked on military issues for more than 20 years, and he's alarmed. Taylor says in his time in Congress, the armed forces weren't politicized as they are now by Trump.

GENE TAYLOR: The welfare of the troops was always first.

GRISALES: Duke University politics professor Peter Feaver is a former national security official in the Clinton and Bush administrations who thinks Democrats have made inroads with the military since Sept. 11.

PETER FEAVER: For the last two decades, the Democrats have tried to level the playing field on national security.

GRISALES: Military sentiment could impact races in key states such as North Carolina, home to the Army's largest U.S. installation - Fort Bragg - and Georgia, which has about a dozen bases.

Here's Feaver.

FEAVER: The military voters have probably already shifted a little bit away from President Trump towards the Democrats - and in this case, towards Biden.

GRISALES: And the Biden campaign has renewed questions about Trump's fitness as a military leader.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Joe Biden understands the awesome power, responsibility and sacred duty of being commander in chief.

GRISALES: But Republicans say Trump's work to fund the military will resonate more with voters. Here's Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a combat Army veteran herself who's facing a tough reelection fight.

JONI ERNST: I think you're judged by the actions.

GRISALES: And the GOP has questioned the sources of the claims, including one in The Atlantic that Trump rejected a 2018 visit to a World War I cemetery because he said it was filled with, quote, "losers" from the Battle of Belleau Wood.

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TODD YOUNG: Belleau Wood is sacred ground. I believe that deeply. The American people believe that deeply, and I think the president also believes that.

GRISALES: That's Indiana GOP Sen. Todd Young, who's also a Navy and Marine veteran. But Taylor, the former House Democrat, says the negative reports for Trump have stacked up in a way that military supporters may no longer stick with him.

TAYLOR: There's got to be a breaking point to it. I'm just curious if this is it.

GRISALES: If these voters shift in a big way, that could be a factor in Trump's reelection and if his party can hold on to its Senate majority.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.