The Sun Community News
August 13, 2018
By: PETE DEMOLA
FORT DRUM | American flags. Rock and roll. Heavy artillery. Hundreds of soldiers.
Helicopters and armored vehicles everywhere.
President Trump touched down at Fort Drum on Monday to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, the $716 billion defense spending bill which contains a 2.6 percent pay boost and significant increases in military equipment spending.
The president called the bill the “most significant investment in our military and our warfighters in modern history.”
“I’m very, very proud to be a big, big part of it,” said Trump, who delivered remarks in a hanger full of 10th Mountain Division soldiers who frequently erupted into whoops and cheers.
‘CLIMB TO GLORY’
Trump gently ribbed Rep. Elise Stefanik, the House Armed Services member who invited him to visit the installation in March.
“I have to tell you about Elise,” Trump said. “She called me so many times. And I said, ‘I don’t want to pick up the call.’ She wanted me to be here. I said, ‘I won’t be able to. We’ll have to change a lot of scheduling.’
“But that didn’t suit her,” he said before asking her to join him onstage.
“She’s an incredible representative,” Trump added.
Stefanik, in her first public appearance with Trump, kept her remarks brief.
“It is truly an honor to welcome you to Fort Drum,” Stefanik said. “Home of the historic 10th Mountain Division, the most deployed unit in the U.S. Army since 9/11. Thank you for being here to sign the historic National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the largest pay increase, support for our military families and investments in our military readiness. Climb to glory, 10th Mountain Division.”
Trump later praised the second-term lawmaker for making an “unprecedented commitment for developing our artificial intelligence capabilities,” citing the need for the U.S. to always be on the cutting-edge of adopting new technology in order to retain “military supremacy.”
Neither mentioned the formal name of the bill, the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act, named for the ailing chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Trump has feuded with the Arizona senator over the years. In 2015, the then-candidate said he preferred war heroes who “weren’t captured.”
McCain later cast the deciding vote in the Senate against repealing Obamacare, dealing the deathblow to the legislation Republicans had long pledged to dismantle.
Since then, the pair have traded blows, including criticisms levied by the senator in his latest book, which was released earlier this year.
The perceived snub wasn’t lost on social media, where “John McCain” quickly started trending on Twitter.
“Disgraceful – but nothing will erase for an instant the legacy John McCain has written and is still writing every day,” wrote former Secretary of State John Kerry.
National media outlets all ran with the angle, which dominated coverage of the event.
“I’m proud the NDAA is now law & humbled Congress chose to designate it in my name,” McCain wrote on Twitter. “As Chairman of the Armed Services Cmte, I’ve found high purpose in service of a cause greater than self—the cause of our troops who defend America & all that she stands for.”
The commander-in-chief, who has often expressed fondness for the armed forces, repeatedly told soldiers they were “mountain tough.”
“Nobody stands a chance against you folks.”
Trump appeared to enjoy bantering with service members, many of whom he singled out for recognition, including Fort Drum Soldier of the Year Michael Lima.
“That’s a lot of soldiers. 18,000?” Trump said. “Want to work for me? Thank you, Michael. Great job.”
In a 28-minute speech, Trump repeatedly threw the crowd red meat, pledging to build up armed forces, and lovingly listed the equipment he said would now be purchased following years of “devastating cuts” — including tanks, “fighting vehicles,” battleships and new Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, each of which were positioned behind the podium along a pair of howitzers.
“Funding to modernize our nuclear arsenal is so important, we’re doing a major upgrade of our missile defense,” Trump said. “We’re spending a tremendous amount on our nuclear force. Nobody will be close, and hopefully we’ll never, ever have to use it.”
The president’s comments were flecked with bellicosity.
“America is a peaceful nation,” he said. “But if conflict is forced upon us, we will fight, and we will win,” Trump said. “Right general? Right? Right? You better believe it, general.”
Trump also spoke glowingly of his proposed sixth branch of the U.S. military dubbed the “Space Force.”
“I’ve seen things that you don’t ever want to see what they’re doing and how advanced they are,” Trump said. “We’ll be catching them very shortly. They want to jam transmissions, which threaten our battlefield operations and so many other things.”
Stefanik later she “agreed directionally” with a proposed Space Force, noting it could play a role in modernizing military technologies and combatting threats from Russia and China.
‘FAKE NEWS MEDIA’
Trump largely stuck to convention, reading from a teleprompter, but did appear to stray off-script at points — including when he took a shot at the press.
“We’ve created nearly 4 million jobs since the election, a number that the media in the back would never have said would be possible,” Trump said to wild cheers and whistles. “I’m so proud of myself that I didn’t call them the ‘fake news media,’” he said. “We know the real truth, but I won’t say it today.”
He also boasted, “We have the greatest economy we’ve ever had.”
And unemployment rates among African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans have “reached the lowest levels in the history of America,” he claimed.
Despite having a busy morning morning tweeting about an ex-White House staffer with a new book (“Wacky Omarosa”), FBI Agent Strozk (who was fired from the FBI earlier that morning), and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Trump declined to mention any of them during his remarks.
After he delivered his comments, he invited members of the 10th Mountain Division on stage, where he signed the bill in his trademark spiked signature, which he brandished for the cameras.
Dignitaries in attendance included Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan; several members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and United States Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller — Commanding Major of the 10th Mountain Division Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, Rep. Martha McSally and Vice President Mike Pence, who served as a warm-up act.
“Our president, with the strong support of Congress, will take decisive action to make the strongest military in the history of the world stronger still,” said Pence, citing efforts made under the Trump administration to stamp out the terrorist organization ISIS in the Middle East.
POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE
Ahead of the event, Stefanik waited on the tarmac with Pence, who arrived about 30 minutes earlier than the president in a surprise addition to the schedule.
The pair visited a facility to review weapons and training programs, and the vice president FaceTimed with a soldier’s family.
After debarking Air Force One, Trump received a 21-gun salute to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.”
Stefanik joined the president in watching an assault exercise with 10th Mountain Division Combat Aviation Brigade soldiers and Black Hawk helicopters. Explosions shook the hanger as the soundsystem piped out “America the Beautiful.”
Following the event, Trump flew to Utica for a fundraiser for Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-New Hartford), where he was greeted by hundreds of protestors — and supporters.
Stefanik called it a “huge honor” to have the president, vice president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff attend the bill signing.
The lawmaker said she wasn’t nervous despite the high profile nature of the event.
After extending an invitation to Trump in March, Stefanik studied the trips by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, both of whom visited the installations during their first terms.
“It’s always exciting,” Stefanik told The Sun in a phone interview, noting she has hosted high-level delegations before.
But, she added: “A presidential visit is a whole different level.”
Stefanik said she didn’t know she would be asked to speak until five minutes before Trump beckoned her on stage.
“You did a great job,” Trump told her when the two shook hands.
Stefanik said she believes the president understands Fort Drum is a unique community.
“He was very excited to be here,” Stefanik said. “He was excited to sign the bill.”
The lawmaker declined to dismiss the political ramifications of appearing with Trump before the midterm elections, stressing the event was designed to celebrate the bill and Fort Drum — not politics.
She did, however, confirm the president’s account that her office did reach out numerous times to follow up on the invitation.
“We reached out to the administration since March to remind him of Fort Drum and the official letter,” Stefanik said.
Trump last visited upstate New York in April 2016, when he stumped in Watertown, Syracuse, Plattsburgh, Albany and other locales.