Members Only | February 27, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trump’s Beef with Dick
It speaks to the nature of our national identity.
All eyes this morning were on Michael Cohen’s testimony before the US Congress, but I wanted to dial into something that does not get enough attention. The reason it doesn’t get enough attention is because it comes off as a mere spat between the president and US Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Even when reporters do pay attention to it, the reporting is often about Donald Trump’s beef with Blumenthal’s wife, whose family is in the New York real estate business.
The argument, however, speaks to larger themes: moral authority, patriotism and honor. More deeply, it speaks to the nature of our national identity. Are we a nation of ideals or blood? The only way to understand coherently the president’s position in his fight with Blumenthal is to see that he holds himself above the obligations of duty. In being born very rich, Donald Trump can’t be held responsible for things other Americans are held responsible for, because if he were, he’d be just like everyone else, and that’s obviously not the case, because Donald Trump was born very rich.
Before he went to the Senate, Dick Blumenthal was the Connecticut attorney general. He built a reputation for serving veterans. During his 2010 Senate run, he appealed to those he served during his long career, and in doing so, he misstated a few times his record, which remains a source of anger among veterans who have seen combat.
Here’s what happened. Blumenthal used the wrong preposition on (literally) a handful of occasions. Blumenthal said “in Vietnam” when he should have said “during Vietnam.” Here’s what I mean: Blumenthal, after six rounds of draft deferment, served for six years in the Marine Corps Reserve. This was stateside. He did not experience combat. It’s true that he served “during Vietnam.” It’s false that he was “in Vietnam.”
Now, as I said, this is a legitimate sore spot for combat veterans. Saying you were in Vietnam suggests you are entitled to the honors and privileges that go with having experienced the trauma of combat. “Stolen valor,” as it’s called, is something of a plague in our society, and those with moral authority have the absolute right to forever condemn Blumenthal. Blumenthal, for his part, apologized, and Connecticut voters largely accepted it. (That voters “rewarded” him is also a legitimate complaint.)
Blumenthal has never brought this up again, because reminding veterans why they were mad at you is not smart. Yet Blumenthal has continued to be a sharp thorn in Trump’s side, mostly as the lead name in a lawsuit against the president alleging that he’s violating the Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution, which bars presidents from taking bribes. (The allegation is that in being the president as well as the head of the Trump Organization, Trump is the direct beneficiary of his elected office.)
For whatever reason, perhaps rivalry with Blumenthal’s wife’s family’s real estate business, or fear of Blumenthal’s lawsuit, the president continues to bring up on Twitter the senator’s half-truth about Vietnam, as he did this morning:
Now, the effect of Trump continuing to bring up Blumenthal’s half-truth is kneecapping Blumenthal’s moral authority, as in, perhaps: Dick has no right to complain about me and Emoluments because, look, he lied about Vietnam! And to many of the president’s supporters, this is a good enough. It’s not good enough.
First, because the president has zero moral authority on anything related to Vietnam. While Blumenthal served, Trump did not. Period. He lied about having “heel spurs” to shirk the duty of citizenship. Yes, it was stateside. Yes, he never saw combat. But Blumenthal served honorably. His critics portray that as meaningless. It’s not.
Second, Trump’s supporters hold the president to a lower moral standard than they do Blumenthal. While critics allege that Blumenthal stole veterans’ valor, supporters overlook that Trump equated his sex life to being in combat, equated his military school education to being in combat, or, most recently, equated being in Vietnam as a civilian (for a summit with North Korea’s leader) with being in combat during the war.
Worse, while Blumenthal is accused of being close to treasonous, the president’s supporters celebrate the fetid hypocrisy that goes with wrapping himself in the American flag, accusing dissenters of betrayal, calling for their criminal punishment, after exploiting his vast power and privilege to dodge the obligations of duty.
Isn’t that a kind of stolen valor? Yet Trump’s supporters seem fine with it.
Why would that be? It’s probably not about valor. It’s probably about something else, something stemming from the great debate over the real identity of this country.
Are we a nation of ideals or blood?
Michael Cohen had this to say about Trump and the Vietnam War.
During the campaign, Mr. Trump said he did not consider Vietnam Veteran, and Prisoner of War, Senator John McCain to be “a hero” because he likes people who weren’t captured. At the same time, Mr. Trump tasked me to handle the negative press surrounding his medical deferment from the Vietnam draft.
Mr. Trump claimed it was because of a bone spur, but when I asked for medical records, he gave me none and said there was no surgery. He told me not to answer the specific questions by reporters but rather offer simply the fact that he received a medical deferment.
He finished the conversation with the following comment.
“You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam.”
I find it ironic, President Trump, that you are in Vietnam right now.
And yet, I continued to work for him.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
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