President Donald Trump boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.

President Donald Trump boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Pentagon Won’t Throw Traditional Farewell Ceremony for Trump

It’s a shame, and a missed opportunity — not despite recent events but because of them.

The Pentagon, in a break with recent tradition, will not host an Armed Forces Farewell tribute to President Donald Trump. 

It’s a shame, but not a surprise. Trump will leave office in disgrace, one week after the House voted a second time for his impeachment, two weeks after his supporters staged a deadly siege in the Capitol Building, six months after he dragged his Joint Chiefs chairman into a political firestorm, and after four years of nonstop assaults on truth. One of those disgraces is how he is ghosting the U.S. troops that he commanded. 

On Wednesday, the White House announced that this weekend Vice President Mike Pence “will deliver remarks to sailors on the Trump Administration’s historic foreign policy achievements at Naval Air Station Lemoore,” and then to the 10th Mountain Division, in Fort Drum, New York. Two senior defense officials confirmed to Defense One on Thursday that no military farewell is being planned for the commander in chief. 

Perhaps it’s for the best. Trump has used the military as a political prop since his first days in office, from signing MAGA hats for troops to giving partisan-fueled speeches in the heart of the Pentagon. American’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines have been made to stand at attention for Trump’s rants long enough. Besides, presidential visits are an honor and a headache for any military base that hosts them. The last time Trump appeared before troops was the Dec. 12 Army-Navy game at West Point. Before that, there was a brief Oct. 29 private visit with Army special operators at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as he passed through on the presidential campaign trail.

But I’ve seen the fawning exuberance in the eyes of young service members thrilled to see real live presidents of the United States who visit them. There are ways Trump could have shown his respect to the millions of service members who put their lives on the line for their country. If only he could allow any moment to not be about himself.

How have previous presidents used their final appearances as commander in chief? The first Armed Forces Farewell hosted by the Joint Chiefs chairman and defense secretary occured in 1989. Ronald Reagan turned the ceremony at Camp Springs, Maryland, into a celebration of the younger men and women in uniform he faced — while also touting his administration’s successes. Basking in the post-Cold War peace, Reagan noted that America had at last shed its post-Vietnam feelings about the military. “The luster has been restored to the reputation of our fighting forces after a time during which it was shamefully fashionable to deride or even condemn service such as yours. Those days will never come again.” 

Four years later, Reagan’s successor received his Armed Forces Farewell at Fort Myer, Virginia, overlooking the Arlington cemetery. With Gulf War leaders Gen. Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, George H.W. Bush urged the incoming kid from Arkansas not to cut defense spending. 

Bill Clinton used his 2001 farewell to thank the troops for the ways “we are closer than ever before to building a Europe that is peaceful, undivided, and democratic after the 1990s.” Flanked by Defense Secretary Bill Cohen, a Republican; and Gen. Henry Shelton, Clinton said, “Thanks to you, arm-in-arm with our NATO allies, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia was ended, refugees have returned to their homes, and freedom has a chance to flower.”

And in 2009, President George W. Bush celebrated his intensely controversial Afghanistan and Iraq wars. “Because of your actions,” Bush told the assembled troops, “more than 50 million Afghans and Iraqis have seen the chains of despotism broken and are living in the liberty that the Creator intended. The new wave of freedom in the Middle East has made America more secure at home, because it is undermining the culture of tyranny that fosters radicalism.” He added, “You'll be able to tell them the story of the first decade in the 21st century, their early days of a generational struggle against terror and extremism.”

In January 2017, Obama was feted in a somewhat awkward-feeling event. It was fitting; the 44th president had an awkward relationship with the U.S. military. He presided over an administration that attempted to tone down the hyper-militarized Bush years, but still commanded wars from Afghanistan to Libya, closing up one in Iraq and restarting it in Syria. He bristled at Bush’s oorah-gushing, shoulder-hugging manner with the troops. Privately, Obama had his own intimate relationships with some leaders and the ranks, particularly young minorities. And First Lady Michelle Obama used her office to direct media spotlights onto programs for military families and wounded warriors, a cause which her successor, Melania Trump, has given minimal time and attention. 

One month earlier, Obama had staged his own thank-you moment to the war-fighting troops at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base, the headquarters of U.S. Central Command and warrooms for U.S. Special Operations Command. Troops cheered as they always do for a president, but some derided Obama’s policy-heavy speech as a crass attempt to burnish his legacy by staging a photo op with those who had done the real hard work fighting ISIS.

It’s unclear whether Trump has any relationship with the troops. His love for them could be as sincere as any president, given the gravity of the office and the daily experiences with those offering him and his family personal protection. By now, any attempt to stage his own rally with U.S. troops surely would meet a mixed reaction. Some would cheer; others would question its motives or sincerity. But in these fractured days, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff felt compelled to remind the men and women under arms in American service of their responsibility not to a man but to the Constitution, an Armed Forces Farewell for Trump would have meant subtly more than any that had come before. A Pentagon event thrown by the military’s leaders for their civilian president, from any political party, would showcase to the world their support for American democracy and a peaceful transfer of power. 

Being commander in chief, Reagan said in 1989, is “the most sacred, most important task of the presidency.” And so he used his final moment in front of a military audience to close with simple words that Donald Trump, by his own hand, will not be given the opportunity to say: “On behalf of all America, I thank you.”