COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France—Nancy Pelosi is seldom charitable toward Donald Trump.
Strategizing with fellow Democrats earlier this week, the House speaker told them that the president should be imprisoned, not impeached.
Thursday found Pelosi front and center for Trump’s speech marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. When he finished, and after French aircraft flew overhead streaming red, white, and blue smoke, I waded through the crowd to ask Pelosi what she thought. She was surrounded by people taking pictures, but she paused for a minute to consider Trump’s performance. “Lovely,” she said. “The president made a very fine speech.”
It’s hard to argue it any other way—even if the president can undo his message with a simple tweet. With world leaders watching, Trump indeed delivered a reassuring speech. He stuck to the teleprompter, ad-libbing only once, to note the resilience of Russell Pickett, one of the veterans sitting behind him onstage. Pickett was injured on D-Day and again later in the war, but insisted on rejoining his company. “Tough guy,” Trump said in the shadow of the Normandy American Cemetery, which holds more than 9,000 graves for those killed in the fighting.
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.
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.
For Trump, a speech is very often just a speech: words on a page that don’t necessarily signal an enduring commitment to any position or policy. Whatever he reads from the teleprompter can be reversed in a tweet.
And it’s clear that Trump has other things on his mind. Hours before he spoke of the Allied triumph over Hitler, Trump happily tweeted that the MSNBC talk-show host Rachel Maddow and CNN are suffering ratings drops. Still, his performance here went over well. His two adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr., sat near the front, surrounded by his Cabinet officials and senior staff. The president told stories about the war with dramatic flair, turning his back to the audience at times and applauding the veterans, many of whom sat in wheelchairs, bundled in blankets. They loved the show.
“There’s a lot of people back in Pennsylvania who want to vote for you,” one veteran shouted as Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron arrived onstage.
“He’s got guts. When someone calls him a name, he’s going to get even,” Joe Scida, 94, of western Pennsylvania told me.
After the ceremony, Trump and Macron flew by helicopter to Caen, France, for a private lunch to discuss military and trade issues. Macron symbolizes the sort of internationalism that Trump has scorned in the past. It’s these sorts of talks that will test whether his visit to the Normandy beaches influenced his thinking or was merely another perishable moment in a frenetic presidency.
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