On 13 August 2018, President Trump visited Wheeler-Sack Army Air Field at Fort Drum, New York, for a ceremonial signing of the John McCain National Defense Authorization Act, a $717 billion military spending bill for fiscal year 2019.
In addition to funding increases in troop strength, equipment upgrades, and modernization, the bill included a 2.6 percent pay raise for service members (the highest increase in nine years), as well as a 3.4 percent increase in basic subsistence allowance and a 2.9 percent increase in basic housing allowance.
Before the official signing took place, Trump spoke to the assembled troops of the 10th Mountain Division, whom he complimented on their valor and dedication. “You’re not just tough, you’re mountain tough, you’re mountain proud, and you’re mountain strong, ever climbing to glory,” he told them.
But something else Trump allegedly said drew way more attention on social media. After announcing the increase, he supposedly told the troops that if they were “real patriots,” they would turn down the pay raise:
Direct from your mouth, “If soldiers were real patriots, they will not take a pay raise” Wow? How unthoughtful coming from a 5 Time draft dodger who was scared to wear the uniform ???
— John Hobbs Jr (@HobbsAnimations) August 15, 2018
‘If soldiers were ‘real patriots,’ they wouldn’t take a pay raise: “Does anybody not want it? Please raise your hand,” Trump he said. After scanning the crowd, he added, “What’s going on here? Are these real patriots? I don’t know, General. I don’t know.” https://t.co/bHJng2prra
— Sig (@NordalSig) August 14, 2018
Some posts on Twitter and Facebook included a short video clip from the speech:
— Tommy Christopher (@tommyxtopher) August 14, 2018
A full transcript and video of President Trump’s speech and the signing ceremony are also available. One thing they make clear is that the president did not utter the words, “If soldiers were real patriots, they wouldn’t take a pay raise.” It isn’t a direct quote.
Here is the relevant passage from the official White House transcript of the speech:
And we are proudly giving our troops the biggest pay increase in a decade. And I know you don’t want it because you’re very patriotic. You’ll say, just save the money. We’re going to pay down debt. Does anybody not want it? Please raise your hand. What’s going on here? (Laughter.) Are these real patriots? I don’t know, General. I don’t know. It’s the biggest increase in a decade.
In context, it’s obvious that the president was teasing the soldiers, not literally questioning their patriotism. His improvised remarks were clearly intended as a joke, even if some listeners might have considered it to be a rather lame one.
Many of the commenters who acknowledged that it was a joke felt it was a disrespectful one, though. And at least one tweet accused Trump of “mocking” the troops:
Trump, addressing troops at Fort Drum, mocks them for wanting pay raise Congress just enacted; “Are these real patriots?”
— John Harwood (@JohnJHarwood) August 13, 2018
But again, the criticism seemed to presume that at some level President Trump seriously doubted his audience’s patriotism. It bears pointing out that this wasn’t the first time he had ribbed U.S. soldiers about wanting a pay raise. During a speech he delivered a few months earlier in which he took credit for a 2.4 percent military pay hike in fiscal 2018 (which he erroneously claimed was the first increase in 10 years), Trump feigned uncertainty as to how soon the troops would like to see another such raise:
Today, I’m here to tell you that my administration is totally committed to every family that serves in the United States armed forces. That is why, earlier this year, I was proud to sign that big pay raise that I’ve already spoken about. And I am proud of it.
And I guess there will be others, too. Would you like one sooner, or do you want to wait another 10 years? I don’t know.
Although Trump didn’t mention patriotism that time, the form of the joke was reminiscent of the one he would later make at Fort Dodd, right down to answering his own tongue-in-cheek question with “I don’t know.” This is typical of Trump’s deadpan, sometimes awkward improvisational style.
Arguably, then, what some have interpreted as a slight against U.S. service members’ patriotism can be interpreted with equal validity as a clumsy attempt at irony — although the only point on which most observers are likely to agree is that it wasn’t particularly funny.