Against Trump Visiting the Troops

Seven reasons why the president should stay home, watch TV, and let Mike Pence visit the men and women serving in conflict zones

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On Sunday, The New York Times published “Put Down the Golf Clubs, Visit the Troops,” an editorial calling on President Donald Trump to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and visit Americans in conflict zones, even if he is scared for his safety, or he is very busy, or he disagrees with the wars in question and doesn’t want to be associated with leading them.

Doing so is “about those who are close to the enemy and far from home, following orders and serving a cause greater than themselves,” the newspaper argues, adding that a visit “isn’t just about raising morale and smiling for a few photos, though that can mean more to a young grunt than most civilians may realize. Americans want a president who isn’t afraid to look at and reflect upon the consequences of his decisions,” hence presidential visits to wounded vets and military graves.

The editorial’s conclusion:

“I’m here on behalf of your commander in chief and all of the American people to pay a debt of honor and respect and gratitude to each and every one of you for your service and your sacrifice,” Vice President Mike Pence told soldiers and airmen at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan during a surprise visit in late December last year.

This holiday, it would be heartening to see the president himself deliver the same sentiment to America’s troops on the front lines, in his own words.

I dissent. I’d rather that Pence go again, and that Trump stay far away from the military, for the following seven reasons:

  1. Sadly, Donald Trump does not possess the moral credibility necessary to successfully discharge the ceremonial duties of the commander in chief. It might be valuable for a different president to show his high regard for self-sacrifice and service to a cause greater than oneself—but no American is a less-credible vessel for that message than a famously greedy egomaniac who holds no cause above himself and constantly sacrifices others for his own benefit. The farce would demean all forced to treat it seriously.
  2. Trump also does not possess the meager amount of self-discipline necessary to successfully discharge the commander in chief’s ceremonial duties. Perhaps he’d responsibly deliver scripted remarks. But think how frequently he proves incompetent—as in his phone call to the widow of an American killed in action—or unable to master himself. It would degrade the morale of deployed troops if he betrayed utter ignorance of their mission, or used his appearance to imply that they side with him in a political fight, or said he likes military men who don’t get captured, or indulged in unseemly self-aggrandizement, or impulsively offered offhand praise for one of the several murderous dictators whom he admires. Trump has neither the judgment nor the discipline to reliably avoid errors of that sort—his downside is much bigger than his upside.
  3. Insofar as Trump has sycophantic supporters within the military, his frequently irresponsible rhetoric and odious moral character might influence them to behave as he does. That is not to say the same for all his supporters. There are good men and women who supported his candidacy and still approve of his presidency. Some would get a thrill from having their photograph taken with the president. They are the strongest argument for him going. They’ll get a lesser thrill from a photo with the veep. But it will come free of the other downsides, and is less likely to be seen in a negative light a few years hence, when more people know more about Trump’s worst misdeeds.  
  4. Americans may “want a president who isn’t afraid to look at and reflect upon the consequences of his decisions,” but we do not have a president of that sort. That isn’t going to change simply because he visits Bagram Airfield, especially if he does so under duress. To the degree that such a visit gives the impression of a reflective president, it will mislead Americans, undercutting the unease they ought to feel as long as the current occupant of the White House governs.
  5. Substantively, Trump has no idea what he is doing as commander in chief—and his disconcerting habits include an abiding faith in his own gut instincts, a penchant for acting on whims, and a habit of reacting to whatever it is that the folks on Fox News are focusing on. The last thing American troops need is Trump wandering around a conflict zone offering whatever instructions occur to him, or repeating to the troops whatever Sean Hannity reads off a teleprompter.  
  6. I believe that many of the deployed troops ought to be brought home. So I’m conflicted about celebrating presidential visits over there, when what’s in their interest and ours is bringing them back here. President George W. Bush repeatedly visited the troops he deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, did it help them? Did it advance victory?
  7. Watching lots of TV and golfing is much, much less expensive for taxpayers.

The U.S. is saddled with an incapable president. Let’s not urge him to attempt tasks that are likely beyond him, in which success would require moral credibility, self-mastery, judgment, reflectiveness, and competence, and failure would do real harm.