(CN) — A group of Republican “Never Trumpers” took their message to military media outlets, including Stars & Stripes, on Tuesday, making the case that President Donald Trump disrespects veterans and is unfit for office.
“It’s a complete disgrace that a commander-in-chief who dodged serving in Vietnam and denigrated POWs publicly has the audacity to disrespect the millions of brave men and women who volunteered for military service,” Fred Wellman, senior adviser for veteran’s affairs at the Lincoln Project, said in a statement Tuesday unveiling the group’s new ad campaign.
A political action committee steered by prominent Republicans, the Lincoln Project says it is working “to prevent the re-election of Donald J. Trump and those who support him.” The group launched Tuesday’s campaign on the heels of a report published this month in The Atlantic that multiple sources heard Trump disparaging veterans as “losers” and “suckers.”
The story erupted only months after the commander in chief courted controversy for his handling of CIA intelligence that Russia had offered and paid bounties to those who killed American soldiers.
Wellman emphasized that the Lincoln Project’s hope is that “every service member, veteran, and their families know the truth about Donald Trump’s betrayal of America’s troops.”
The group released four videos this morning, highlighting both the Russia bounties intelligence, Trump’s reported statements about prisoners of war, as the criticism Trump has faced from his former defense secretary, General James Mattis.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis is quoted in that video as saying.
Trump’s public and frequent criticism of the late Republican Senator John McCain — who spent over five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — likely played a role in wife Cindy McCain’s decision to endorse Democrat Joe Biden for president.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say it, but I’m about to go on one of these Zooms with John McCain’s wife, who is … endorsing me because of what [Trump] talks about with my son and John’s, who are heroes, who served their country. You know, he said they’re losers, they’re suckers,” Biden said during a virtual fundraiser Tuesday.
After listening to the Lincoln Project’s advertisements, Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, said they “paint a picture of a cavalier and disrespectful commander-in-chief, one unworthy of the power he holds.”
“It is much harder to convince yourself to vote for someone who talks about military sacrifice in that fashion,” Feaver said in an interview. “Interestingly, President Trump himself has underscored just how toxic the quotes [seem]. Even as he has insisted the quotes are not accurate, he has also agreed that if someone had talked about military sacrifice like that, he probably is not fit to be commander-in-chief.”
Feaver called it well-known that voters apply a “commander-in-chief threshold test” to presidential candidates they are vetting. He speculated that in running these ads, the Lincoln Project seems to be making the case that Trump is not fit to serve this role.
“One of the most important and solemn responsibilities a president has is to make a use of force decision that orders other people to risk their lives on behalf of the country,” Feaver said. “Voters, not to mention the people risking their lives, need to believe that the person making those decisions is not doing so cavalierly.”
The video featuring the Mattis quote also makes reference to Trump using military personnel to break up protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death earlier this year.
“Militarizing our response as we witnessed this year in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict, a false conflict, between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect,” the video’s narrator says, while the screen shows protesters navigating tear gas and being pushed back by shield-wielding officers in uniform.
Feaver noted that it is not uncommon for presidents to “wrap themselves as tightly in the military,” given respect the American public holds for its troops. What the Lincoln Project is trying to show, however, is that “President Trump has over-used the military prop with little apparent regard for the ways that this politicizes the military.”
Feaver noted that the prospect that active forces would be mobilized to suppress domestic protests struck a nerve with the uniformed military.
“There is ample precedent for that in U.S. history, but there is also ample precedent for such action to come out badly for the military, who then get embroiled in social upheavals,” Feaver said. “That is why both Secretary of Defense Esper and Chairman of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark] Milley argued strenuously against deploying the active duty forces in that way. President Trump wanted to use the military, however, and it was widely seen as political on his part — a desire to look strong even at the expense of undermining the military.”
The ads are slated to run across the Military Times network and Stars & Stripes through mid-October. A spokesman for Department of Defense declined to comment, referring inquiries on the matter to the White House. A White House press representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.