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Commentary: America's military and Donald Trump

Trump addresses Naval Academy grads

Memorial Day, as veterans are quick to point out, is a day to remember America's fallen warriors—not the former ones. (That's Veteran's Day). But it turns out America's military has quite a bit to celebrate this year—in large part thanks to President Trump.

When Donald Trump first took office, "Americans really didn't know if this guy was going to get us into a war," says Real Clear Politics pollster Sean Trende. "There was real worry about how risky it was to elect him president."

Among military hawks, the concern was Trump's "America First" rhetoric leading to U.S. withdrawal from the world, with less support for the Defense Department and its mission.

Instead, this Memorial Day America's military's budget is bursting at its seams, soldiers' paychecks are getting bigger, its Special Forces are deployed in record numbers, and U.S. troops are on the ground in significant numbers in Afghanistan and Syria. For a foreign policy establishment that once worried Mr. Trump might abandon NATO and pull troops from abroad, this is a major turnaround.

When asked to describe the mood at the Pentagon thus far during the Trump presidency, longtime DOD reporter Jamie McIntyre says "they're keeping their heads down, but they're happy."  McIntyre, now the author of the Daily on Defense newsletter, says the DoD is "very happy with the budget President Trump signed -- they feel like that was absolutely vital. And they're also happy with the role he has given [Defense] Secretary Mattis on the world stage."

That budget deal pumped an additional $165 billion into the Defense Department over the next two years, a "huge win for defense hawks," according to Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Institute.  And it seems to signal a solid shift by President Trump into the defense-policy mainstream.  Voters who wanted a Trump presidency to usher in a Rand Paul foreign policy are clearly disappointed. Enthusiastic Trump fan Ann Coulter, for example, criticized Trump's decision earlier this year to bomb Syria-- "a country 7k miles away and of zero strategic interest"—in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons.

Trump's support for the military makes sense given how they've supported him. Veterans supported Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton 60-34 percent in 2016, and, according to polling, continue to support the president at far higher numbers than the overall electorate.

And while polling of active-duty military members is rare, one such poll last October found 44 percent have a favorable view of the president at a time when his overall approval rating was around 38 percent. Interestingly, Trump's approval was highest among the rank-and-file soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines (48 percent), and lowest among officers (30 percent).

Still, President Trump has had his share of stumbles on military and veterans, most notably the failed nomination of would-be VA Secretary Dr. Ronny Jackson. And some complain that President Trump has not moved as swiftly on veterans' issues as he promised, even as problems like long wait times remain.

And according to McIntyre, the lack of public DoD briefings during the Trump era reflects concerns by the Pentagon brass of being caught up in the president's political slipstream. 

"Press briefings with generals used to happen all the time," McIntyre said. "Not anymore. Nobody wants to see their name in the president's Twitter feed at 6 in the morning."

Overall, however, the president remains relatively popular. His pick of acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has been met with approval by the American Legion and AMVETS, and Mr. Trump is about to sign a sweeping new VA reform bill, the MISSION Act, expanding private-sector healthcare access to veterans, a move also backed by veterans groups.

Veterans are key part of Trump's base and, like his evangelical and Second-Amendment supporters, Trump treats them with special care.  Is it really a coincidence that President Trump has focused on the NFL protests?  While kneeling during the national anthem is unpopular among all Americans, veterans are even more offended.

At the same time, video of President Trump shaking the hand of every one of this year's 1,042 Naval Academy graduates went viral on the Right.  This may be mere symbolism, but symbolism is often simply smart politics.

According to a Zogby poll from last year, veterans are part of what he calls the "hidden Trump vote," almost half saying they are reluctant to admit their support for the president. In other words, President Trump's margin among vets may be even higher than it appears.

Memorial Day may not belong to America's veterans, but this president certainly does.

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