The New York Times reacted with typical petulance to Donald and Melania Trump’s first visit to the troops in Iraq, bashing not only Trump himself (typical) but the U.S. troops in Iraq for bringing Trump their personal MAGA hats to sign, while pondering if the troops would be disciplined. The headline to Annie Karni’s Friday edition report led with the negative: “President Crossed Political Line in Visit to Soldiers Abroad, Critics Say.” The online headline was blunt: “Trump Iraq Visit Is Called a Political Rally.”
During his surprise visit to American troops in Iraq and Germany this week, President Trump singled out red “Make America Great Again” caps in a sea of military fatigues, signed a “Trump 2020” patch and accused Representative Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats of being weak on border security.
Now the president is facing accusations that he was playing politics with the military.
“When that starts happening, it’s like the politicalization of the judicial branch,” said Mark Hertling, a retired three-star Army lieutenant general.
Visiting troops abroad is a presidential tradition in which the commander in chief puts aside politics to thank a military that represents a broad spectrum of the country. But Mr. Trump’s political comments and his encouragement of supporters in the crowd veered from those norms.
Ms. Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, accused Mr. Trump of turning uniformed troops into scenery for a campaign speech. “He offered our brave men and women in uniform the bitter insult of using them as political pawns to push his radical right-wing, anti-immigrant agenda,” Mr. Hammill said. “The president turned his first visit to our troops into another cringe-worthy Donald Trump reality-show special.”
Some commentators on Fox News also criticized the president for injecting politics into the event.
Then the story took a nasty, CNN-type of turn:
The political paraphernalia on display, which Mr. Trump appeared to encourage during his speech by referencing the caps he had signed, has raised questions at the Defense Department about violations of military protocol by the troops who greeted him. One woman in uniform at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, for instance, welcomed Mr. Trump with a “Make America Great Again” flag, according to a photograph posted on Twitter by a Bloomberg News reporter who accompanied Mr. Trump on the trip.
A directive from the department prohibits active-duty personnel from engaging in “partisan political activities” and advises that “all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DoD sponsorship, approval or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause.” Defense Department and Army regulations also prohibit military personnel from showing any political leanings while in uniform, Mr. Hertling said.
An official said the department was aware of the situation and “trying to figure it out” by tracking down photographs of troops holding red caps and campaign flags, and piecing together where the campaign paraphernalia came from.
Mr. Trump said on Thursday that he could not turn down any requests from the soldiers. “If these brave young people ask me to sign their hat, I will sign,” he tweeted. “Can you imagine my saying NO? We brought or gave NO hats as the Fake News first reported!”
The military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported that the Air Force had determined that the soldiers holding MAGA hats during his visit to an air force base in Germany were not in violation of any rule.
Perhaps Trump really is popular among the military? This either wasn’t an issue, or it didn’t matter to the press when it came to Barack Obama’s visits to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Times loved Obama’s visits, sporting headlines like “In Unexpected Visit to Iraq, Obama Wins Troops' Cheers.”
When Obama visited Iraq in April of 2009, the Times could only cite rousing support, and no objections to partisanship by soldiers:
Reiterating his pledge to end a war he opposed from the start, he told a cheering crowd of American troops that it was time for Iraqis ''to take responsibility for their country and for their sovereignty.'' Later, with a hint of impatience in his words, he urged Iraq's leaders to unite the country's deeply divided ethnic and sectarian factions and to incorporate them all into government and security forces.
''It is time for us to transition to the Iraqis,'' Mr. Obama told hundreds of American troops jammed into Al Faw Palace, an imposing sandstone building in an artificial lake that once belonged to Saddam Hussein. The uniformed crowd greeted that remark specifically with rousing applause.
NewsBusters noted at the time that other bloggers suggested Obama backers were put at the front, which might suggest some political staging: "We were pre-screened, asked by officials “Who voted for Obama?”, and then those who raised their hands were shuffled to the front of the receiving line. They even handed out digital cameras and asked them to hold them up."
Yet president George W. Bush’s Thanksgiving visit during the treacherous early days of the Iraq War in 2003 was greeted with ill-concealed hostility. One editor even circulated the left-wing fake news (months later) that Bush had posed with a fake turkey.