Trump looks to veterans as example of unity, hours after controversial Phoenix rally
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 23, 2017
RENO, Nev. — Eleven days after violence erupted during a rally organized by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., President Donald Trump held up veterans Wednesday as an example of inspiration to unify a divided nation.
Trump addressed more than 5,000 veterans at the 99th annual American Legion National Convention in Reno, Nev., where he praised his administration’s work on veterans issues and spread the message that veterans can inspire the rest of the country “to overcome the many challenges that we face.”
“We are here to draw inspiration from you as we seek to renew the bonds of loyalty that bond us together as one people and one nation,” Trump said. “Those who wear the nation’s uniform come from all different backgrounds and every single walk of life, but they are all united by shared values and a shared sense of duty. They are all part of one team, with one mission in mind. Now our nation must follow that same devotion to a greater cause to achieve our nation’s full potential.”
Trump spoke for just over 20 minutes Wednesday about progress on veterans issues and the recommitment to the war in Afghanistan. He briefly talked about crime, needed infrastructure improvements and “failing” government schools, but repeatedly returned to the message that “we have no division too deep for us to heal.”
Joining Trump on stage at one point was Vietnam War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Donald Ballard, who told the crowd, “We’ve elected the right leader to drain the swamp.”
Trump praise Ballard, saying, “Today we are reminded that the greatness of our nation is found in our people like Donald. As long as have faith in each other, and confidence in our values, then there is no challenge to great for us to conquer.”
The remarks were a shift from what Trump said just yesterday during a a divisive, campaign-style event in Phoenix, where he spoke for 75 minutes and accused the media of dividing the nation. He also blamed the media for the widespread disapproval of his response to the Charlottesville, Va., rally.
In Phoenix, thousands of people protested outside the convention center Tuesday evening, and law enforcement used gas, flash-bang grenades and pepper spray to disperse the crowd after some protesters reportedly threw rocks and bottles at police.
Local news outlets reported a difference scene in Reno, with a smaller group protesting peacefully outside the convention center during Trump’s speech.
Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve had issued a statement asking Trump to use his speech Wednesday to “deliver a strong message rejecting racism, hate and violence.”
“The city of Reno is an inclusive city that prides itself on our kindness and compassion,” Schieve said in the statement. “We condemn the hateful acts that have taken place in our country recently. Now more than ever, it is time to unite our country.”
Schieve issued the statement in response to concerns from Reno residents who reacted when they heard Trump was to appear at the convention, she said.
American Legion officials said Tuesday they had received calls from some veterans who were angry about the group’s decision to host Trump. Legion spokesman Joe Plenzler said that the decision was not a political one, and that every president since Calvin Coolidge has been invited to their annual conventions.
The Legion chose to reaffirm its commitment Tuesday to a resolution the group first passed in 1923 -- to decry any individual or group that creates discord over race, religion or socioeconomic class. The resolution states that those people are “un-American, a menace to our liberties and destructive to our fundamental law.”
Progress in reform
Trump praised recent progress for veterans during his Wednesday speech, addressing several VA reform efforts.
Earlier this summer, Trump signed legislation created with the purpose of holding VA employees accountable and rooting out a culture of corruption, which was one of his campaign promises.
“If someone at the VA is bad to the people of the VA … we look at them and say, ‘You’re fired,’” Trump said Wednesday, prompting applause.
Trump also praised the VA for establishing a White House hot line for veterans, which was part of his 10-point plan to reform the VA. However, the hot line isn’t yet fully operational and is being run by VA employees, not the White House. The hot line was supposed to start 24-hour service this month, but the VA announced it would be delayed until Oct. 15. Trump mentioned a large expansion of veterans education benefits – known as the “Forever GI Bill” -- signed last week. The bill was created and championed by a handful of veterans organizations working with Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate.
A bipartisan deal between lawmakers also resulted in the signing of a bill to pay for new VA clinics and hiring programs and to fund the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to receive health care in the private sector. The bill temporarily extended the current Choice program, which VA Secretary David Shulkin has called complex and bureaucratic. He spoke to Legion members earlier Wednesday.
To allow more veterans to get private-sector care, as Shulkin and Trump have promised, the VA still needs to work with Congress and veterans organizations to overhaul its community care programs. And the administration could face some challenges. Large veterans organizations, including the American Legion, have warned against the VA sliding too far into the private sector, which they think could erode VA resources.
While speaking to the Legion crowd Wednesday, Shulkin promised he would not choose privatization.
“For those who think just because we want to work more with the community that that’s privatization, it’s absolutely not,” Shulkin told the crowd.
On stage Wednesday, Trump signed a bill aiming to speed up the process of getting veterans their earned benefits. Veterans who appeal denied claims for benefits now wait an average of five years for a decision. The appeals modernization bill was an effort started under former President Barack Obama and former VA Secretary Bob McDonald that didn’t gain traction in Congress until this year. It applies to new appeals, but doesn’t address the backlog of those pending.