President Donald Trump’s D-Day commemoration speech featured moving stories of heroism, determination, and grit.
Speaking in Normandy, France, and standing just yards away from where nearly 10,000 American and allied troops sacrificed their lives, Trump told world leaders and a number of veterans who’d fought bravely 75 years earlier why the massive effort to stop Nazi Germany’s push to overrun Europe remains one of the most impressive feats in recent memory.
Trump’s remarks were arguably the best of his presidency, leading even some of his top critics to concede that the president rose to the moment.
“More powerful than the strength of American arms was the strength of American hearts,” Trump said in a powerful section. “These men ran through the fires of hell moved by a force no weapon could destroy: the fierce patriotism of a free, proud, and sovereign people. … They pressed on for love in home and country — the Main Streets, the schoolyards, the churches and neighbors, the families and communities that gave us men such as these.”
But the address was also a stark example of how a speech can ring hollow because of who delivered it. In this case, Trump’s stirring words — while they surely meant a lot to those who heard them — ultimately fell short because of the nature of the man himself and his presidency.
Three reasons stand out for why Trump’s D-Day address could’ve been more powerful had he not been the one giving it.
First, despite his show of appreciation for military service, Trump avoided donning the uniform himself — putting him in stark contrast with those who gave up home comforts to fight and die in Normandy.
“They were young men with their entire lives before them,” Trump said. “They were husbands who said goodbye to their young brides and took their duty as their fate. They were fathers who would never meet their infant sons and daughters because they had a job to do.”
Trump, given a similar chance, didn’t do the same. He never served in the Vietnam War after receiving draft deferments from 1964 to 1968 while a college student, later getting an additional deferment for medical reasons.
On Wednesday, Trump told Good Morning Britain’s Piers Morgan why he didn’t want to fight: “I was never a fan of that war, I’ll be honest with you. I thought it was a terrible war, I thought it was very far away.” He added, “This isn’t like I’m fighting against Nazi Germany.”
However, Trump made sure to add that he would have been “honored” to serve in the military but feels he’s making up for not doing so by authorizing big defense budgets as president.
To be clear, a president doesn’t need to have military experience to lead America or celebrate veterans. But a president who compared avoiding sexually transmitted infections as his own “personal Vietnam” may not be the greatest messenger.
Second, Trump used the occasion to underscore and reaffirm the decades-long alliance between the US and Europe, even though he’s spent much of his presidency undermining it.
“Our cherished alliance was forged in the heat of battle, tested in the trials of war, and proven in the blessings of peace,” Trump said near the landing point for thousands of troops on Omaha Beach. “Our bond is unbreakable.”
But Trump has long questioned the utility of NATO, cozied up with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and openly berated European nations for, among other things, letting in refugees from the Middle East and not spending enough on defense. What’s more, he’s championed Britain’s divorce from the European Union, a decision that has thrown one of America’s oldest allies and the entire bloc into political chaos.
Few in recent years, then, have done more to break the “unbreakable” bonds between the US and Europe than Trump.
Sitting just a few feet away from the thousands of white grave markers at the Normandy American Cemetery, where nearly 9,400 American war dead are buried, Trump insulted former special counsel Robert Mueller and said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — or “Nervous Nancy,” as he called her — is “a disaster.”
Asked if he would mind if Mueller were to testify before Congress, as House Democrats want, Trump replied that the special counsel had “made a fool out of himself” the last time he testified (though it’s unclear what Trump means since Mueller hasn’t openly spoken in front of Congress as special counsel). Trump then added: “Nancy Pelosi — I call her ‘Nervous Nancy’ — Nancy Pelosi doesn’t talk about it. She’s a disaster. She’s a disaster. Let her do what she wants, you know what? I think they’re in big trouble.”
For Trump to denigrate two fellow Americans — whom he may not like but whose patriotism and loyalty to the country is unquestionable (Mueller, for example, is a veteran) — while sitting just a few feet away from the remains of America’s fallen military heroes greatly takes away from the power of his speech.
That’s not to say the president shouldn’t have given the address. He had to based on the enormity of the moment, and the remarks were unquestionably stirring. But Trump’s past and his time in office turn the address into little more than a lovely string of words unreflective of his character.
He was, in almost every way, the wrong man at the wrong time for that speech. If Trump really wants to honor D-Day’s heroes, he should live and work by their values from here on out.