Trump’s 30-minute speech touted the courage of men who were wounded during the war, the power of an alliance that defeated Nazism, and the virtue of sacrificing for causes greater than self.
Trouble is, when Trump talks about history, the incongruities with his own personal story become only more jarring.
In his speech, Trump celebrated the soldiers who braved mines and machine-gun nests on the Normandy beaches. These, Trump said, “were young men with their entire lives before them. They were husbands who said goodbye to their young brides and took their duty as their fate.” When duty called in the form of the Vietnam War, Trump didn’t say goodbye; he stayed home. He has cited either student or medical deferments as the reason. The medical issue involves bone spurs in his feet, though a New York Times investigation last year raised questions about whether that diagnosis was legitimate.
Read: First wave at Omaha Beach
In any case, Trump has long made clear that missing the Vietnam War is hardly a lingering regret. Talking to the shock jock Howard Stern in 1998, Trump said that the perils of catching a sexually transmitted disease on the dating circuit were tantamount to the risks of fighting in Vietnam.
“It’s Vietnam,” Trump said. “It is very dangerous. So I’m very, very careful.”
In London this week, Trump told the British TV host Piers Morgan that he was “never a fan of that war,” adding that “nobody had ever heard of” Vietnam.
Though he praised the heroism of D-Day soldiers who suffered injury, Trump has denigrated a war hero for allowing himself to get injured and captured. The late Senator John McCain was shot down and taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. He was tortured in captivity. During the 2016 presidential race, Trump said of McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured.” He never warmed to McCain and continues to demonize him to this day—10 months after the senator’s death from brain cancer.
A moment in the speech that NATO allies no doubt appreciated was Trump’s mention of the military alliance that won World War II. The cemetery honors the immense sacrifice involved; it’s row upon row of crosses and Jewish stars popping from neatly cut grass. Wandering among the grave sites before the ceremony were high-school groups from Indiana and Delaware. Teachers had assigned students the names of fallen soldiers from their home state. On the crisp, sunny morning, the teenagers moved solemnly through the grounds, trying to find the people they’d studied and planting state flags.
“To all of our friends and partners: Our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace,” Trump said. “Our bond is unbreakable.”
Over the course of Trump’s term, that bond has looked fragile. Trump campaigned on a nationalist platform that was suspicious of multilateral agreements. Since taking office, he has pulled out of the Paris Agreement and the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of which were negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama. When it comes to defense, Trump, like previous American presidents, has faulted allies for failing to shoulder more of the costs. But he has gone further: He was sufficiently incensed at a NATO summit last year that he told his counterparts the United States would “go it alone” unless they raised defense spending to 2 percent of economic output, according to a Reuters report.