That Sinking Feeling: Trump’s Coast Guard Charm Offensive

(Photo: AP/Susan Walsh)

President Trump salutes as he leaves commencement exercises at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, on May 17, 2017.

Donald Trump’s exquisite sense of personal indignation over slights real and imagined was on full display Wednesday at the commencement exercises for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Class of 2017. And for those keeping score, the contradictions between Trump’s words and his actions were difficult to ignore.

In March, contrary to his zeal for all things military, President Trump had proposed slashing the Coast Guard budget by $1.3 billion, a 12 percent cut that made the Guard the only one of the five military branches subject to the administration’s slash-and-burn budget. A bipartisan group of senators ultimately blocked the cuts. Two months later, Trump came to New London, Connecticut, passing over his attempt to decimate the Guard but taking care to lick his gaping emotional wounds. 

“No politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly,” Trump told the cadets, a complaint that captured the attention of reporters and pundits across the political spectrum.

But if Trump’s address to the nearly 200 graduates was a fresh exercise in narcissism, it also paled in comparison to the remarks of past presidents who offered more finely tuned observations on domestic and foreign affairs.

The national threat matrix has long been a theme of Coast Guard Academy presidential addresses. In 2000, Bill Clinton detailed his concerns about international terrorism and the miniaturization of weapons. Clinton told the graduates: “You should understand that the same process of miniaturization will find its way into the development of biological and chemical and maybe even nuclear weapons. It is something we have to be ready for.”

Nearly two decades later, Trump distilled his understanding of the Coast Guard’s role in facing threats this way: “You will pursue the terrorists, you will stop the drug smugglers, and you will seek to keep out all who would do harm to our country, all who can never, ever love our country.”

In 2015, Barack Obama discussed climate change, outlining its importance as a national security threat and the military’s keen recognition of its potential to destabilize countries and precipitate refugee crises. “The Pentagon calls climate change a threat multiplier,” Obama said. “So politicians who say they care about military readiness ought to care about this as well.”

Little did Obama know that his successor would be a climate denier who would pack the relevant federal agencies with his fellow nonbelievers. At the academy, Trump, he of the climate-change-as-Chinese-plot faction, had nothing to say on the subject. But he did mention that he planned to loosen up the environmental regulations that are strangling the American economy.

Former commanders in chief could be counted on to provide astute commentary about U.S.-Russia relations. Shortly before his 1988 summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan told his audience of Coast Guard cadets that the meeting would focus on “human rights, regional conflicts, and arms reduction.” In his address the following year, George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director, gave his assessment of the relationship between the two countries in the waning years of the Cold War:

The grand strategy of the West during the postwar period has been based on the concept of containment: checking the Soviet Union’s expansionist aims in the hope that the Soviet system itself would one day be forced to confront internal contradictions. The ferment in the Soviet Union affirms the wisdom of that strategy.

Trump would be hard-pressed to unpack the elder Bush’s observations, much less discuss their relevance to the current geopolitical climate. Instead, with the conflagration over contacts between the Russia and his presidential campaign operatives widening, Trump, who has often professed his admiration for all things Russia and Vladimir Putin, was silent on the topic at the academy.

Every year, graduation speakers hope to provide a dollop of wisdom for young men and women to absorb. Presidents are no different. Clinton had this to offer:

Almost 40 years ago, President Kennedy stood on the deck of the Eagle, and that day he said this: “There is not a single person who has sailed any of our lakes or oceans who has not at one time or another been the beneficiary of the faithful service of the Coast Guard.” Today, that great tradition falls to you in the greatest age of possibility in human history. You are the generation chosen by providence to lead the Coast Guard into the new century. Your class motto says, Ducentes viam en millennium—leading the way into the new millennium. Now you have the preparation to do it. You clearly have the courage and character to do it. I pray you will also have the vision and wisdom to take your motto and truly make it your own.

Trump, in the second commencement address of his presidency, offered these nuggets:

Something is happening all the time with the United States Coast Guard. You do an amazing job. … To every new officer, and to every new Coast Guard member here today, or out protecting life around the world on some of the roughest waters anywhere, you truly are doing God’s work. What a grateful heart you must all have. Because it is with my very grateful heart, and America’s cheers for the Coast Guard—and America cheers for you often—but we wish you good luck.  

Like every branch of the military, the Coast Guard is a microcosm of American society and indeed, many graduates and families cheered his words. There were just as many others who realized that unlike the 44 men who preceded him, Trump is not one to reflect deeply on questions of war and peace or exhibit any real awareness of the staggering responsibility that he has as commander in chief.

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