After 50 years, Donald Trump finally makes it to a war zone

Speaking to service members from the Oval Office on Christmas.
Speaking to service members from the Oval Office on Christmas.
Image: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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Updated Dec. 26 at 3:15pm ET with details of the Trumps’ trip to Iraq. 

Donald and Melania Trump made a surprise visit US troops in Iraq on Christmas evening, the US president’s first trip to a war zone.

The Trumps spent about three hours at Al-Asad Air Base, west of Baghdad, where they visited troops in the dining hall, and met with the US ambassador. The president said that ISIS is “very nearly defeated” and the caliphate is gone, and he and the first lady took selfies with service members and signed autographs, according to the press pool report.

Trump, who addressed US troops overseas from the White House again this Christmas and Thanksgiving, had been criticized for—until now—bucking the presidential tradition of visiting soldiers in war zones early in your term, a practice that goes back to the Civil War. Official word of his visit to Iraq was not issued until today (Dec. 26), when Sarah Sanders tweeted about his visit in the early afternoon, Washington DC time.

He had avoided combat as a civilian as well. As a teenager, Trump registered for the draft during the Vietnam War, as required by law, yet avoided military service thanks to four education deferments, and then a final doctor’s report that physically disqualified him for combat, citing “bone spurs.”

A new report from The New York Times raises questions about that convenient diagnosis. Two daughters of the Queens podiatrist who provided the diagnosis back in 1968 told the Times that their father often referred to it as a “favor” to Fred Trump, the future president’s father and the doctor’s landlord. “Elysa Braunstein said the implication from her father was that Mr. Trump did not have a disqualifying foot ailment,” the Times reports.

“But did he examine him? I don’t know,” she said.

In return, Fred Trump was an extremely responsive landlord, she said. “If there was anything wrong in the building, my dad would call and Trump would take care of it immediately. That was the small favor that he got.”

As a teen, Trump attended the New York Military Academy in upstate New York, a private school that catered to troubled, wealthy boys. Despite the name and stylized uniforms, there was no combat training, and attendees were not required to go into military service afterward. (There was, however, brutal hazing.) Still, Trump has said he got “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.”

Trump’s previous reluctance to visit US troops in a war zone, despite traveling for dozens of political rallies and making hundreds of trips to his own properties as president, has been openly criticized by military veterans. “It’s not just to get an idea what is going on, but to personally thank the men and women of the United States who are exposing themselves to great dangers for the country,” senator Jack Reed, a US Army veteran, told reporters in October.

Active duty troops’ support for Trump has slipped during his two years in office, and some 43% of troops surveyed by the Military Times disapproved on him in October. That support is likely to have eroded further after the recent resignation of defense secretary James Mattis, who declared Trump a national security risk in his resignation letter.