Tanzina Vega: I'm Tanzina Vega, and you're listening to The Takeaway. It's Veteran's Day, so Happy Veteran's Day to those of you who have served and are serving. In just two months, the armed forces will have a new commander in chief in President-elect Joe Biden. While Joe Biden is no stranger to veterans' affairs following his eight years as vice president and his late son's military service, he will be inheriting a military infrastructure that, on the one hand, has been bolstered financially by President Trump, and on the other, is also one who's top brass the president has been at odds with.
Just this past Monday, for example, the president fired his third secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and appointed Chris Miller, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center as acting defense secretary. Joining me on this Veteran's Day is Tom Vanden Brook, Pentagon correspondent for USA Today. Tom, welcome to the show.
Tom Vanden Brook: Hello, Tanzina, thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Let's with the news that President Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper. This is the third, fourth firing. What was behind this firing?
Tom: Well, it goes back largely to this summer when President Trump was pushing to have the Insurrection Act invoked in order to quell protests following George Floyd's death, and the military pushed back very hard on this, including Esper. They didn't want to have active-duty troops policing US streets. Trump was angry about it, and he never really forgot it. At that point, it seemed to be pretty close to the last straw for Esper.
Tanzina: The president is known for making rash and public decisions about his military officials, in general, isn't he?
Tom: He has. Well, he fired three more yesterday at the top of the Pentagon, and the number three official who's the undersecretary for policy was resigned abruptly and was replaced by a Trump loyalist and two other top officials as well. We've seen firings by tweet. We've seen policy made by tweet, exceptionally unconventional, to say the least.
Tanzina: Unconventional is one way to put it. I recall when the president was running his campaign, one of the first things that stood out for many people was how much contempt he had for then-competitor, John McCain, who had served, himself, in the military and had been a prisoner of war. The president has had a difficult relationship with military personnel, particularly, with veterans. Tell us a little bit about that.
Tom: Well, I think he misreads a lot of where the loyalty for the military actually lies. It's not towards him as president, it's to defend and protect the constitution. He's never quite seemed to grasp that issue, that he is not personally-- This is not his personal force, and whenever there is pushback on issues, he seems to take a personally rather than as a policy issue. You've seen, again and again, he's gone through four secretaries of defense, five, if you include one who had to be a placeholder. Once there's pushback, that seems to rupture the relationship.
Tanzina: There's some early polling that shows that President Trump may have lost popularity among troops. Some folks are saying that they were considering voting for Joe Biden instead of President Trump. Why don't we think Trump's approval rating with active-duty members has slipped on?
Tom: I think this is part and parcel to that we just spoke about, Tanzina, that there's this pledge that troops give to protect the constitution. When they see some of these norms be trampled, he's lost some of their loyalty and respect. The Military Times did some polling earlier this year and it showed a significant slippage and his popularity versus Biden's. Now, there's still probably a plurality who, at least, according to this Military Times poll, support him, but that popularity has slipped dramatically.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about what the president has done or not done for veterans. Has the president helped improve veteran's healthcare, for example, which we know is a huge, very important issue for veterans who've come back, many of them who've been sent out on multiple tours of duty to come back and deal with the lingering health effects both mental and physical of these deployments?
Tom: Well, there have been some improvements, but the main issue with veterans has been his false claim that the Choice Act, which has been very popular for veterans in seeking care was his idea when, in fact, it was born in the Obama administration. A few years later into his administration, it was expanded and enhanced, but it's not his baby as he continually claims.
Tanzina: We've been talking a lot during this election about mail-in ballots and absentee ballots, and some of the folks who have been part of that group are military members who are serving overseas. What do we know about those votes?
Tom: They typically come in, well, obviously, come in by mail if you're overseas. This has been done for decades. Dating back to the Civil War, there were troops voting by mail. Oftentimes, they don't arrive until after Election Day, but they have been postmarked and they are legitimate votes that need to be counted. There's been some reporting that shows that in Nevada, where the race is close, some veterans would not have their vote counted if the president were to have his say because those votes, the ballots themselves arrived after November 3rd, and he's trying to cut off that date at November 3rd. They may be disproportionately affected by his attempts to curtail counting of ballots.
Tanzina: Do we have any sense of what is happening in the Pentagon right now as these firings have been taking place over the past couple of days and whether or not that is putting us in a position where, not only are our active-duty troops are probably looking at this saying, "What if something happens in the next couple of weeks before a peaceful transition of power?" Is there a concern that this is also de-stabilizing to our troops and to our military top brass?
Tom: Well, there's real concern about that. Last night, after Trump had fired these three officials and replaced them with loyalists, we heard from the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee saying, "All Americans should be concerned about this." The last thing that you need in a transition to a new president is more instability. There's a great deal of concern about that right now.
Tanzina: Tom, there've been some folks who have said that the president-- I want to use this word very carefully here. What they're observing is a slow-moving attempt at a coup. Is that something that you're hearing from your military sources that they are concerned about that, or do they consider this to be more bluster before the president actually leaves office?
Tom: The folks I talked to would not-- I've not heard the term coup used. I talked to a former senior official yesterday about this and his thought was, Trump can put all these new folks in and he can try to do things, but there is an institutional Pentagon, there's a uniform military that, again, we go back to this, "Allegiance is to the constitution," and it's very unlikely that someone like Mark Milley, for instance, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is going to execute an unlawful order. I think this is where the institutional part of the Pentagon probably puts the brakes on something that could go seriously awry. That has to be the hope at this point, right? I mean, we don't know what's going to happen in the next 70 days.
Tanzina: Tom Vanden Brook is a Pentagon corresponded for USA Today. Tom, thanks so much for joining me.
Tom: Thanks, Tanzina, I appreciate it.
Tanzina: If you're a veteran or currently serving in the armed forces, give us a call at 877-8-MY-TAKE, that's 877-869-8253, and tell us how the Trump presidency has affected you. Again, that number is 877-869-8253.
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