As the American Legion wrapped up its historic 100th national convention this week in Minneapolis, the nation’s largest veterans organization found itself making history on another front.
The traditionally conservative Legion is publicly at odds with President Donald Trump on issues that include a proposed national military parade, the future of veterans’ medical care, and this week, lowering flags to half-staff in honor of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain.
“This level of criticism is unprecedented,” said Thomas Rumer, a historian and author of “The American Legion, An Official History 1919 to 1989,” a book commissioned by the organization. “It’s not the kind of thing they’re known for — criticizing presidential action.”
The Legion’s statements about Trump’s policies lack the hard edge of some of Trump’s harshest critics but still are unusual for an organization that has been especially friendly to Republican presidents. The Legion does not endorse candidates.
Asked about its recent statements about Trump policies, Joseph Plenzler, a spokesman for the national Legion, said, “The American Legion has been a staunch watchdog for the veteran community for a century.”
Legionnaires attending the convention said they back their organization’s recent stances concerning White House policies.
“The Legion was created to safeguard the rights of veterans,” said Juan Cruz, 54, a Navy veteran and Legion adjutant for Puerto Rico. “And I’m pretty sure other veteran services organizations are in agreement.”
“I concur with the comments made by the American Legion,” said Thomas McDonald, 69. “It’s their duty to speak out.”
Despite the Legion’s criticism, however, many Legion members interviewed at the convention continue to support Trump.
“I think he’s great,” said Royce Loesch, 72, of Pierre, S.D., an Army veteran. “I think he’s doing a good job in every aspect, except I think he tweets too much.”
Lawrence Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said the Legion is influential in veterans circles, and if its positions cause even a small number of veterans to sit out the fall midterms or 2020 presidential election, it could be “very harmful” to the political futures of Trump and the Republican Party.
“Veterans overwhelmingly are very pro-Republican, and the Legion has a long history of being one of the most conservative organizations,” Jacobs said. “For the president to get this kind of pushback from such a veterans organization is unheard of.”
The Legion weighed in after Trump ordered U.S. flags lowered to half-staff at the White House in honor of McCain, who died Saturday, then quickly had them raised again. Denise Rohan, the Legion’s outgoing national commander, berated Trump’s silence on McCain, along with the flag, in a statement.
“On the behalf of the American Legion’s two million wartime veterans, I strongly urge you to make an appropriate presidential proclamation, noting Senator McCain’s death and legacy of service to our nation, and that our nation’s flag be half-staffed through his interment,” she wrote. Quickly afterward, Trump reversed himself, ordering the flags lowered while issuing a statement.
The Legion and White House also clashed over Trump’s plan to hold a large military parade in Washington, D.C., this fall. With reports that the parade could cost $92 million, Trump announced last week he’d wait until next year to hold it.
The Legion used the decision to make a point: “The American Legion appreciates that our President wants to show in a dramatic fashion our nation’s support for our troops. However, until such time as we can celebrate victory in the War on Terrorism and bring our military home, we think the parade money would be better spent fully funding the Department of Veterans Affairs and giving our troops and their families the best care possible.”
The remarks reflected the Legion’s opposition to reports that the White House urged Republicans to reject $50 billion in funding for the Veterans Affairs Mission Act, which would outsource some medical care for veterans to private medical clinics.
Instead, the White House wants the costs to come out of the Department of Veterans Affairs budget, which the Legion and other critics say would result in cuts in other veterans services.
This month, the Legion again offered strong words after a ProPublica report that Trump was getting advice on how to run the VA by a trio of private citizens who have never served in the U.S. military or government. The Legion’s public reaction was swift.
“We are not about to tell President Donald Trump who he can or cannot take advice from, but we hope that he carefully considers the qualifications of those offering that advice when it comes to the treatment and well-being of America’s veterans,” Rohan said in a statement.
In the hallways of the Minneapolis Convention Center this week, several veterans discussed the president.
“I’ve liked what he’s done,” said Theo Chambers, a Navy veteran from West Virginia. “I don’t think the media has been really fair to him and that’s why he’s gone so much to Twitter.”
Preston Herald III, 70, a Navy veteran from Washington, D.C., said he did not like Trump’s policies or overall performance in office, singling out his campaign criticism of McCain for being captured by the North Vietnamese after he was shot down.
“That was an affront to an American hero,” he said.
Army veteran Arthur Hart, 75, of Champlin, said he’s not surprised by the Legion’s stances. “If any other president had said the same things, the Legion would have taken the same position,” he said.