Military veterans divided over Trump’s Russia comments
By AMANDA LEE MYERS and BEN FINLEY
Thursday, July 19
Iraq War veteran Chris Sheppard fumed as he watched President Trump’s joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
The former combat engineer with the U.S. Marine Corps sat glued to his cellphone screen in his downtown Seattle office, watching live on Monday as the American president suggested he believed Putin’s denial that his agents interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections. Trump also declined to say whether he believed the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered.
Sheppard, who left the military after 13 years in 2005 and is now a tax attorney, couldn’t believe his ears.
“It’s like I’m watching somebody commit treason,” he said of Trump.
But former U.S. Marine Boe Bostjancic, a 61-year-old Virginia Beach resident, said while he didn’t particularly care for Trump’s performance in Helsinki, the president was acting like the same politically incorrect leader he voted for and still supports.
“At least I can respect the fact that he was honest with us,” Bostjancic said.
Sheppard and Bostjancic represent the mixed views among former members of the U.S. military to Trump’s comments: Some say they are a betrayal, with the commander in chief giving more credence to Putin’s word than to the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies and creating a hardship for those who serve and put their lives on the line. Others say Trump’s relationship with Putin, whatever it may be, is positive for the U.S., and won’t change their minds about their president.
Trump on Tuesday said he simply misspoke in Helsinki and accepted the conclusions by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the election hacking, but then on Wednesday he appeared to defend his original remarks.
Those who spoke with The Associated Press largely didn’t buy his change in tone — or said it didn’t matter.
Sheppard, 43, a self-described reluctant Democrat who became disenfranchised with the Republican party during the Iraq War, characterized Trump’s performance in Helsinki as “a national tragedy.”
“I honestly felt like Trump wasn’t representing the collective interests of Americans. He looked like he was representing the interests of Vladimir Putin.”
Kate Handley, a 22-year Navy veteran whose husband is still on active duty, said Trump’s reluctance to fully support American intelligence agencies also undermines the U.S. military.
“He’s throwing the military under the bus when he throws the intelligence community under the bus,” said Handley, 52, of Chesapeake, Virginia. “Everything we do — every deployment — is based on a reason. And it’s often based on (information) the intelligence community has.”
Handley, who retired as a chief petty officer, said she started serving under President Ronald Reagan.
“Just because the Soviet Union broke apart, doesn’t mean they stopped being our enemy,” she said of Russia. “What has Russia done to advance the U.S.’s interest? They go against U.S. interests.”
But James Flaskey, a 74-year-old Norfolk, Virginia, veteran who served in the U.S. Army during the height of the Cold War with Russia, sees it a bit differently.
“Back then it seemed like they were our enemy. We couldn’t trust them,” Flaskey said as he sat in a Norfolk barbershop.
But now the dynamic with the former Soviet Union is different, he said, and because of that he trusts that Trump is doing the right thing, even if the end game isn’t exactly clear.
“I think he’s got a reason to be friends with Putin,” Flaskey said. “And I think it’ll be to our advantage, just like with North Korea.”
Aron Axe, a combat-decorated Marine infantry officer with 25 years in uniform, feels anything but trust for his president after witnessing his performance in Helsinki.
“I felt like I’d spent a career defending the principles and the freedoms of this country,” said Axe, 44, who lives in Annapolis, Maryland. “And in just a few moments I watched a president hand over any semblance of pride or respect for what so many people like me in uniform have been fighting for and potentially been dying for over the last several decades.”
Axe, who retired in 2016 and recently made an unsuccessful bid in a Democratic primary for a Maryland state House seat, said the issue has little to do with political party and “everything to do with the person who is in the office of commander in chief.”
Kim Samayoa, a research operations manager at a biotech firm in South San Francisco who served as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy for three years, said Trump’s words and actions make her and her active-duty friends nervous.
“All this backtracking is frustrating because we’ve seen with Trump that if a button gets pushed, he really doubles down and escalates things,” the 41-year-old mother of two said. “If we do end up needing to support a conflict, what this means for some people in the military — these are life and death matters.”
This story has been edited to correct spelling of Kim Samayoa’s name.
Myers reported from Los Angeles and Finley from Norfolk, Virginia. Associated Press Writer Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.
Opinion: Trump’s Fun-Filled Week Abroad
By Doug Bandow
If American foreign policy was a reality show, Donald Trump would have turned it into television’s highest rated program. But when he acts as president, the consequences are real. Washington’s policies have a disproportionate effect on the entire world.
Unfortunately, the president’s almost weekly train wrecks obscure criticisms that frequently are reasonable, even far-sighted. For instance, President Trump’s insistence that other nations do more is long overdue. Similarly, his willingness to break protocol and meet foreign leaders formerly seen as untouchable puts America’s interest before foolish tradition.
Such was the case with his recent trip to Europe.
The president raised serious issues. For instance, he is quite right that NATO members long have taken advantage of America. Although Washington initially had to carry most of Europe’s load after World War II, that ceased to be the case decades ago.
Despite the presumed threat posed by the Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan called the Soviets and their satellites, the Europeans routinely failed to keep their promises to spend more. During the Cold War Washington might have decided that it had to defend its irresponsible clients to prevent Soviet domination of Eurasia. But no longer.
Today the Europeans believe that either they face no serious threat or America will continue to protect them. The result is the same in both cases: they take a free, or at least cheap, ride on America. With the United States essentially bankrupt — running trillion-dollar annual deficits and facing $200-trillion-plus in unfunded liabilities — what amounts to defense welfare no longer is affordable. It is time to tell them, “No More!”
As for the United Kingdom, the form of Brexit obviously will determine how fast and far London and Washington can go in forging a bilateral free-trade agreement. Geography alone makes the U.K.’s economic ties to Europe vital. However, to the extent that the British government hopes to replace continental business with American commerce, London will have to craft Brexit carefully.
Finally, the United States and Russia appear to be heading into a new Cold War. That is foolish for both sides.
Although Vladimir Putin is no friend of America, there is no evidence that he views Washington as a necessary enemy. Like a modern tsar, he wants respect and secure borders.
Unfortunately, the United States has done much to treat Moscow as an adversary: it ignored pledges to Soviet and Russian leaders not to expand NATO to Russia’s new borders; it lawlessly dismantled traditional Russian ally Serbia; and it promoted revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine against governments friendly to Moscow. Moreover, Washington’s international behavior is consistently aggressive, intervening in scores of other nations’ elections (including Russia’s in 1996) and routinely bombing, invading and occupying other states, including Syria, a traditional Russian ally.
These actions help explain, though not justify, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists. Moreover, the latter response, though ugly, threatens no vital U.S. interests. Which suggests a deal is possible: perhaps end NATO expansion in return for Russian withdrawal from the Donbas. The West should accept though not recognize Crimea as part of Russia: the former won’t return to Ukraine short of war.
Yet the president did his own cause no good when he seemed to go out of his way to insult not just his hosts, but almost every foreign official he met. He trashed the Europeans and insisted that they spend 4 percent of GDP on the military, more than America.
He dumped on U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit stance while endorsing departing Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson for her job. The president then flipped to lavish praise upon May, who survives mostly because the Tories fear an all-out leadership battle.
Finally, his complimentary, even obsequious stance toward Putin undermined his case for making a hard-nosed deal to advance America’s interest. Even Republicans trashed his reluctance to accept the judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian interference with America’s election, a genuinely vital American interest. Had he drawn a red line there, he could have better advocated concessions elsewhere.
The president is his own worst enemy. Despite his oft-confrontational rhetoric, he is willing to use diplomacy to advance America’s ends. Equally important, he appears to recognize that America’s traditional foreign policy consensus too often has led to horrid, bloody failure.
Yet he seems unable to take the responsible steps necessary to turn his views into policy. As a result, he discredits otherwise sound arguments on the need to transform American foreign policy.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.” He wrote this for InsideSources.com.