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So Much for Trump’s ‘Love’ of the Military

Trump has made concern for “our great military” one of his calling cards. So where is his rage at Putin for putting targets on their backs?
June 30, 2020
So Much for Trump’s ‘Love’ of the Military
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to Air Force personnel during an event September 15, 2017 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. President Trump attended the event to celebrate the 70th birthday of the U.S. Air Force. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Christopher Slutman, 43, had always wanted to be a firefighter. He was that kind of kid, the kind who wants to save people. The son of a firefighter, he grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland and eventually made his way to the New York fire department, because, as his father, Fletcher Slutman, Jr., explained, “it’s the best.” Christopher was the best of the best. In 2014, he was honored for bravery after rescuing an unconscious woman from a fire. He was also a Marine Reserves staff sergeant who had served in Iraq. Last year, he was assigned to duty in Afghanistan.

On April 8, 2019, just two weeks before he was scheduled to return home, he and two other Marines were killed when a roadside bomb exploded near Bagram Air Base. The Taliban were thought to be responsible—and it is speculated that this may be one of the attacks Russia was sponsoring.

One of Slutman’s colleagues remembered him as the “definition of an American patriot.” He is survived by his wife Shannon and three daughters, who were 10, 8, and 4, on the day he died.

Also murdered that day were Cpl. Robert A. Hendriks, 25, of Locust Valley, New York, and Sgt. Benjamin Hines, 31, of York, Pennsylvania. Hines was an “all around a great guy with an upbeat attitude who loved the Corps through and through,” recalled Sam Belli, a member of his squad. “He never treated you like a subordinate. You were always an equal and friend.” Robert Hendriks and his brother joined the Marines together. Robert was “the perfect son,” his father Erik told Stars and Stripes, “he never caused me one problem. I am the proudest dad on Earth.”

The question that cannot be avoided is this: Did President Trump—through laziness, dereliction, or some still-inexplicable prostration to Vladimir Putin—make these Marines’ deaths, or those of other Americans, more likely?

The New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal are all reporting that U.S. intelligence agencies had become aware that Russia was offering cash bounties to the Taliban to kill Americans and other coalition forces as early as March 2019. The intelligence was included in the president’s daily brief in the spring of this year—though some say placing information in a report is a perfect way to hide it from the president—and it was also the subject of a National Security Council meeting. “Given that there was an NSC meeting, I suspect that [Trump] did know” about the intelligence, former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden told the Washington Post.

The president’s spokespeople are playing word games. “The National Security Council and the intelligence community constantly evaluate intelligence reports, and they brief the president as necessary,” said press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Pressed on whether the information was included in the president’s daily brief, she sidestepped. The president “has not personally been briefed on the matter and that’s all I have for you today.” Well, that could mean merely that the information was not spoon-fed verbally. Besides, she added, the reports of Russian cash for American corpses were “unconfirmed” and there was “no consensus” in the intelligence community. But that is always the case with intelligence. There are always dissenting views, and there is almost never “consensus.” 

CIA Director Gina Haspel, by contrast, did not deny the intelligence. “When developing intelligence assessments, initial tactical reports often require additional collection and validation,” she said. Okay, that’s boilerplate. She then added that when information is obtained that may affect the welfare of U.S. combat forces, it is “shared throughout the national security community—and with U.S. allies—as part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the safety of coalition forces overseas.”

In fact, the Washington Post has reported that the intelligence was shared with the British, who have the third-largest deployment of forces in Afghanistan. So the British were informed, but the president was kept in the dark? And if he was kept in the dark, what does that say about his leadership?

President Trump, who maintains the highest vigilance about any harsh word from Joe Scarborough or Don Lemon, says he was unaware. “Nobody briefed or told me, @VP Pence, or Chief of Staff @MarkMeadows about the so-called attacks on our troops in Afghanistan by Russians, as reported through an ‘anonymous source’ by the Fake News @nytimes,” he tweeted. He wasn’t finished.  “Everybody is denying it & there have not been many attacks on us.”

Pause on that for a moment. “There have not been many attacks on us.” That must be a great comfort to the Hendriks, Hines, and Slutman families.

Trump is not slow to anger, as we know. Yet when it comes to Vladimir Putin putting bounties on the heads of America’s warriors, he is strangely unperturbed. Knowing that Putin was reveling in American deaths, he invited him to attend the G-7 meeting in September. 

It’s hardly news that Trump lacks empathy, but he has made concern for “our great military” one of his calling cards. Where is even a hint of rage at Putin for putting targets on their backs? All of his ire is directed at the New York Times, with none to spare for the Kremlin ghoul. Far from imposing a price, Trump rewarded him.

Trump’s vaunted “love” of the military is not for the real military, the one represented by Hendricks, Hines, and Slutman. It’s for a twisted, gangster image of militarism. He ran for office promising that as commander-in-chief he would order the U.S. military to commit war crimes. While president, he pardoned war criminals. Showing no concern for the possible health consequences, he insisted that West Point bring its graduates back to campus so that he could address them in person (and brave the treacherous ramp). His “love” of the military is worse than phony. He has no appreciation of what sacrifice means. He has no understanding that serving means putting someone else’s welfare before your own. He thinks the military are a bunch of thugs—recall that the thing that drew him to General Jim Mattis was the nickname “Mad Dog,” which Trump falsely later claimed to have bestowed on Mattis.

Robert Hendriks, Benjamin Hines, and Christopher Slutman were patriots. Slutman was always contributing to his community. He was an Eagle Scout. Robby Hendriks, his mother said, had a lot of friends. “He was a normal, all-around boy.” She always knew he would join the service. Ben Hines had a gift for lifting morale in his unit. A fellow Marine recalled, “He was very attentive to his Marines and always put everyone else’s needs first.”

It’s not credible to imagine that Trump was ignorant of Russia’s role in this. But in any case, it’s now known to the world. Where, oh where, is Trump’s concern for them?

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].