In the face of another round of protests from veterans who oppose his presidential campaign, presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump is ramping up his focus on veterans issues and courting the community’s votes in November.
The controversial business mogul plans on making veterans hiring and integration a key talking point in coming weeks, according to individuals working with the campaign. That includes highlighting vets in the party’s platform process and providing them key roles at the July convention.
Themes will include not just strengthening national defense and improving the Department of Veterans Affairs but also “changing the whole narrative of the broken veteran,” according to Matt Miller, director of Veterans for Trump.
Supporters say the moves aren’t a shift but a re-emphasis of the campaign’s past statements in the area in the face of mounting protests from Democrats, who have hammered Trump on a series of missteps on defense and veterans issues in recent weeks.
On Monday, a small group of veterans identifying themselves as “Vets vs. Hate” staged a protest outside Trump’s headquarters in New York, demanding apologies for “the dangerous consequences of (his) campaign rhetoric.”
Organizers have called the event a grass-roots opposition effort, but outside news organizations and Trump supporters have linked the group to a series of liberal advocacy organizations and parts of the campaign of presumed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
And Trump's supporters have said the veterans' protests do little more than confuse and distract the larger veterans community from more important issues.
“The Trump plan for VA has been established,” said David Bellavia, an Iraq War veteran and conservative activist. “It’s a matter of using the political capital to fix it. It’s going to take a commander in chief that has the intestinal fortitude to make it happen.”
“It’s about firing incompetent executives that have already failed us, the modernization of VA, allowing doctors outside the system to help guys get the best care. Mr. Trump is talking about eliminating red tape, talking about the veteran and the family.”
Instead, the campaign has spent most of its time recently responding to questions about Trump’s donations to veterans groups, a scandal Bellavia dismissed as overinflated.
Critics have blasted the timing and intent behind the $6 million in donations after a campaign fundraiser in January. Bellavia charged that Clinton’s foundations have not received the same level of scrutiny and examination, and have been less generous to veterans groups.
Last week, Clinton’s campaign issued a release detailing Trump’s “incessant lip service on the trail” toward veterans, accusing her political foe of “disrespecting our veterans and our military for decades” and highlighting campaign missteps like mocking Sen. John McCain for his time spent as a prisoner of war.
Supporters dismissed that criticism as lies and exaggerations of off-the-cuff comments don’t take away from his larger goals.
“You can always find something that you don’t like,” said Mark Geist, a Marine Corps veteran and part of the State Department security team attacked in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. “But Mr. Trump wants to bring veterans together to have a voice, make a difference in VA’s programs. That’s the most important point.”
To a lesser extent, Clinton's and Trump’s campaigns have sparred a bit over expansion of outside health care options and privatization fears. Trump supporters are promising to bring more attentions to those policy disagreements in the days leading up to the convention.Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org