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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky – President Donald Trump repeated his nationalist call to always put “America First” and praised the might of the U.S. military Wednesday as he claimed to be doing more to help veterans than previous presidents.
Trump said his administration will now forgive federal student loan debt for permanently disabled veterans, a new benefit on top of changes in access to medical care for which the president takes outsize credit.
“We are reawakening American confidence and American pride,” Trump said at the annual AMVETS convention, where many in the crowd of about 2,500 wore hats, badges and other insignia from their home organizations.
“We are America first,” Trump said. “You didn’t use to hear it very much. You didn’t use to hear it at all.
“No longer will we sacrifice America’s interest to any foreign power,” the president said.
Many in the audience were veterans of overseas conflicts.
“If our enemies should dare to fight us, they will be crushed with overwhelming American might,” Trump said. “No adversary stands a chance against the awesome power of the red, white and blue. There is no military even close to ours.”
AMVETS was among the veterans’ groups that criticized Trump last year for his response to the death of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy veteran and war hero with whom Trump had feuded.
“It’s outrageous that the White House would mark American hero John McCain’s death with a two-sentence tweet, making no mention of his heroic and inspiring life,” AMVETS National Executive Director Joe Chenelly had said at the time.
Trump did not mention McCain or the controversy over his response in his remarks here, which came days before the first anniversary of McCain’s death from cancer.
McCain’s widow, Cindy McCain, did not mention Trump by name as she called on Americans to take a pledge of civility “in these difficult times.”
“We have no kings or dictators to snap their fingers and demand action. We have to debate and bargain to get anything done,” McCain wrote in an essay published Tuesday in The Washington Post.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not appear alongside the president and he was not with Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, and other politicians who greeted Trump at the airport.
McConnell was briefly hospitalized after suffering a fractured shoulder from a fall outside his home in Louisville on Aug. 4.
In his speech, Trump praised McConnell, especially for his effort to confirm federal judges and Supreme Court justices, and pledged to return to Kentucky to campaign for McConnell’s reelection campaign. He did not mention the senator’s health.
Trump is also headlining a fundraiser here Wednesday to support Bevin as the Republican faces a tough reelection bid in November against Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear. Beshear is the son of Bevin’s predecessor in the governor’s office.
Bevin showed his own support for Trump over the weekend, when he was photographed stopping by a booth run by the Kentucky Democratic Party wearing a jacket printed with Trump’s face.
Bevin is currently enmeshed in a bizarre legal fight with his lieutenant governor over a staffing dispute. A lawyer for the governor told a Kentucky court Monday that the issue was little more than a small disagreement among friends.
“My friends don’t treat me this way,” Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton retorted afterward.
Veterans are an important political constituency for Trump, who portrays himself as a vigorous friend to the military and an advocate for veterans.
The crowd laughed and cheered for a warm-up joke Wednesday that appeared to back Trump’s reelection, although AMVETS does not issue endorsements.
Trump is the first president to address the organization’s annual convention.
“This is not a campaign speech. So I will not say, ‘Keep America Great,’ but we’re going to keep America great,” Trump said to laughter.
Quoting the famed Army general Douglas MacArthur, he told the crowd, “In war, there is no substitute for victory.
“We have an armed forces that’s unparalleled, and to achieve victory, there is no substitute for the unmatched character and courage of those who proudly wear the nation’s uniform,” he said.
A Pew Research Center survey of veterans in May found 57 percent approved of how Trump has handled his duties as commander in chief of the military, and 41 percent disapproved, a flip from the public overall, among whom 57 percent disapproved and 41 percent approved.
About half, 48 percent of veterans, said the Trump administration’s policies have made the military stronger; 23 percent say his administration has made the military weaker. Nearly half – 45 percent – said the president doesn’t pay enough attention to military leaders in making national security decisions.
AMVETS, a nonpartisan service organization, was chartered by Congress in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II.
Ken Wolford of Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, a past national commander of AMVETS, said he is glad Trump came to address the organization’s 75th anniversary.
“I think he’s done a lot for the military, and for the veterans,” Wolford said, citing access to medical care among Trump’s priorities.
“We want to hear good things about what’s going on in the country,” such as tax cuts. “We don’t want to hear any politics, which I hope he didn’t bring any with him. This is for the veterans.”
Trump invoked politics, at least by implication, in claiming a better record for veterans than former president Barack Obama.
“After years of neglect, we are fixing the heartbreaking failures from the last administration at the Department of Veterans Affairs. America must never abandon our heroes in their hour of need,” Trump said.
He also repeated a standard, but false, claim about his record.
“You don’t wait anymore. You go out and see a private doctor,” Trump said. “Veterans Choice. They’ve been trying to get that for 44 years,” prior to his administration, he said.
The VA Choice bill was mostly an update of a law signed by Obama in 2014 to allow veterans to see doctors outside the government-run VA system at taxpayer expense.
Trump did expand access to the program this year.
The Mission Act signed by Trump took effect only recently, on June 6, and allows veterans to see private health-care providers if they live more than 30 minutes from a VA clinic or face wait times of more than 20 days for most health-care appointments.
In April, before the new law took effect, the Government Accountability Office found that the “VA cannot systematically monitor the timeliness of veterans’ access to Choice Program care because it lacks complete, reliable data to do so.”
Democratic presidential candidates have questioned Trump’s medical deferment from service in Vietnam and suggested his focus on the military and veterans is insincere.
Trump has long defended his deferments as legitimate.
“This is somebody who, I think it’s fairly obvious to most of us, took advantage of the fact that he was a child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place,” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said during a Washington Post Live event in May. Buttigieg is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
“I don’t have a problem standing up to somebody who was working on Season 7 of ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ when I was packing my bags for Afghanistan,” Buttigieg said during his Post appearance.
Buttigieg was commissioned as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve in 2009 and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, while serving as mayor.
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Sonmez reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Emily Guskin contributed from Washington