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Kristofer Goldsmith saw the Iraq War as unnecessary, but as a military man he respected then-President George W. Bush’s loyalty to the armed forces and the intelligence community and felt he had their best interests at heart. Not so with President Trump. Mr. Goldsmith and other military veterans consider themselves patriots first and supportive of the office of the presidency but are deeply concerned by Mr. Trump’s words this week in Helsinki, Finland. While standing next to his Russian counterpart, Trump appeared to side with President Vladimir Putin against the unanimous assessment of his own intelligence agencies. Though Trump has since sought to dial back his remarks and express support for US intelligence services, the president’s unpredictable behavior and contradictory statements achieve the opposite of projecting toughness as commander in chief of a powerful military, say vets. “The fact that he wants to buddy-up to someone like Putin and seems to be so malleable isn’t strong,” says Zach Skiles, a former Marine corporal and a doctoral student in psychology. “It’s scary, it’s embarrassing, and it’s shameful.”
Kristofer Goldsmith served in the military during the presidency of George W. Bush, and while he came to regard the Iraq War as unnecessary, he respected then-President Bush’s loyalty to the armed forces and the intelligence community.
“I never once felt that he didn’t have the best interests of the United States at the forefront of his mind,” says Mr. Goldsmith.
But the Iraq war veteran says it was totally different watching President Trump stand side by side with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki this week and cast doubt on unanimous US intelligence assessments that Russia systematically sought to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.
“To have a former KGB agent and an authoritarian standing next to a democratically elected president, and then to have the president condemn the entire US intelligence and security community – it’s mind-blowing,” says Goldsmith, founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy, a nonprofit group in New York. “I can’t imagine what it was like for current service members to watch our president eating out of Putin’s hand.”
Trump sought to dial back his remarks Tuesday. But just as he was telling reporters at the White House that he had “full faith and support for America’s intelligence agencies,” the lights went out.
“Oops, they just turned off the light,” the president said, then added: “That must be the intelligence agencies.”
While only a joke, Trump’s words underscore his frequent belittling of the US intelligence community, which its members say dangerously undermines American credibility abroad – as well as among law and order professionals at home.
Amid that backdrop, the president’s Helsinki summit performance Monday is heightening doubts about the commander-in-chief among Americans who have risked their lives for national security. They consider themselves patriots first and supportive of the office of the presidency – some to the point that they are not even willing to be quoted anonymously – but are deeply concerned about Trump’s words in Helsinki this week. They say his open display of distrust is likely to have consequences far beyond political point-scoring at home.
During Goldsmith’s combat tour in 2005, for example, he helped gather intelligence from residents in Sadr City, Iraq, walking door to door in the impoverished district that was full of anti-American militia fighters to ask for information that could assist his US Army unit.
He asserts that Trump’s criticism of US intelligence agencies will deter people living in war zones from working with US troops.
“The president doesn’t understand the life-and-death risks those people take for us,” says Goldsmith. “[Trump] sent a message to every asset or potential asset in the entire world that when information gathered at ground level reaches him, he considers it worthless. That’s going to make people ask why they should cooperate.”
Distrust on both sides
To be sure, there is a range of views among veterans, a majority of whom have supported Trump in the past.
“I think he’s got a reason to be friends with Putin,” said James Flaskey, who served in the US Army during the height of the cold war with Russia, in an interview with the Associated Press. “And I think it’ll be to our advantage, just like with North Korea.”
In addition, some suggest Trump may be right to call into question the conclusions of US intelligence agencies, particularly around politicized issues.
Security professionals point out, for example, the calamitous intelligence failures that led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to neutralize Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. It is arguably harder, however, to find evidence of a secret weapons program in a foreign country than of foreign interference in one’s own electoral system, even if that, too, has become politicized.
But as messy as politics can become, many have noted the resilience of US government institutions, which have overcome a multitude of shocks – including, in the last two generations alone, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and the impeachment of President Nixon.
Yet while Trump’s mistrust of his own intelligence services – and apparently greater faith in the words of autocratic leaders he has met, from Putin to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un – may be a passing phase of American intramural acrimony, it has broken long-standing rules.
“The intent of countries like Russia is to create confusion, dissent, and chaos in their adversaries, and we have let it run wild in the US at every level,” says Bobby Ehrig, a retired US Army master sergeant and veterans advocate in Albuquerque, N.M., who served two tours in Iraq and suffered severe burns from a 2006 suicide bomb attack.
Mr. Ehrig worries that discord evident in Washington has created the perception abroad of a country in disarray, a view he fears could place deployed US troops at risk. In the past, he recalls, even when missions went awry, military leaders and troops resisted a public airing of differences.
Even as he was seeing many fellow soldiers killed or severely wounded, says Ehrig, “we would never say anything negative in front of our allies or enemies that would show a lack of unified support.”
‘A certain humility required’
Yet that lack of support is the message vets are hearing now from the White House, whatever the president’s intention. Despite dialing back his rhetoric this week, Trump did not hide his contempt for intelligence assessments of Russia, and what he derides as a political “witch hunt."
“There’s a certain humility required to appreciate what it takes to gather intelligence and what the intelligence tells you,” says Zach Skiles, a former Marine corporal who took part in the 2003 Iraq invasion. A doctoral student in clinical psychology in the San Francisco Bay area, Mr. Skiles says he is troubled by Trump’s apparent reluctance to accept findings that conflict with his own beliefs.
“You might have a gut feeling about something but the intelligence says something else and so you have to follow that order, that direction. That takes character, and he’s not showing it,” says Skiles.
The president’s unpredictable behavior and contradictory statements achieve the opposite of projecting toughness as commander-in-chief of a massive, powerful military, he says.
“The fact that he wants to buddy-up to someone like Putin and seems to be so malleable isn’t strong,” says Skiles. “It’s scary, it’s embarrassing, and it’s shameful.”