BALTIMORE — If Donald Trump expected to get a warm reception from a group of people he just dissed, he didn’t get it.
“I’ve met more generals [here] than I’ve ever met in my life. I like them and they like me,” Trump told the crowd packed into the Baltimore Convention Center attending The National Guard Association of the United States’ annual conference.
It sure didn’t feel that way.
The audience, made up primarily of officers in the U.S. National Guard, was lukewarm at best. His applause lines drew a tepid response. A noticeable number of people in the audience declined to clap at all, such as when he bragged about his poll numbers.
The lackluster response may be in part due to Trump’s comments just last week, when he disparaged America’s generals, saying at a presidential forum that they have been “reduced to rubble” during President Obama’s administration. It was not a point he repeated before a convention hall filled with American military officers.
But the speech certainly did not have the boisterous feeling of a Trump campaign rally, where the audience frequently interrupts with chants of “Lock Her Up!” or other insults toward Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. And his stilted comments, delivered from prepared remarks fed to him through his teleprompter, lacked the freewheeling atmospherics that Trump has made a hallmark of his events.
“Still has to work on the teleprompter [delivery],” said one attendee, who asked not to be identified due to his position, but was generally supportive of what Trump had to say. “He could have spent more time on his policies rather than attacking Hillary.”
Trump promised the moon if he were to become president, telling the audience that the National Guard will have “the resources, the equipment and the support you need and deserve,” and a “direct line to the Oval Office—and I mean direct.”
Trump’s speech Monday comes as his campaign has become increasingly divisive within the U.S. military.
While there is no official polling of those those who serve, around the service it appears rank and file troops are more likely to support Trump while their commanders are backing Clinton.
Trump’s suggestion last week at the Commander-in-Chief’s forum that he would purge the military of its generals if they disagreed with his foreign policy only widened that schism. Some in uniform argue that today’s generals are among the nation’s most experienced as nearly all have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the majority have sent troops on missions that led to casualties.
“I just shake my head. I don’t feel much like rubble,” retired Gen. John Allen, a Hillary Clinton supporter, said Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “As I look around at my peers… They’re some of the finest leaders that America has ever put under stars, whether they are admirals or generals. They are spectacular leaders and they have not been reduced to rubble.”
Standing in front of flags representing the country’s 50 states, Trump sandwiched scathing criticism of Hillary Clinton between praise for America’s military. The Republican nominee focused on Clinton’s comments from last week, when she said before a Democratic fundraiser that half of Trump’s supporters were drawn from a “basket of deplorables.”
Clinton’s comments were “most explicit attack on the American voter ever spoken by a major party nominee,” Trump roared. “She revealed herself to be a person who looks down at the proud citizens of our country as subjects of her rule. Her comments display… arrogance and entitlement.”
To be sure, there were some in the audience who were absolutely on the Trump Train.
“It’s disrespectful for any American, not just Trump supporters. When you’re talking about any person… she should be supporting every citizen of the United States,” said Roy Pipkin, a retired National Guard colonel from South Carolina. “When she said that I guess it was a shot at redneck Americans. I don’t know what she meant by it, but having Southern roots… [Clinton’s comments were] totally deplorable.”
Trump’s speech was not particularly self-conscious: Trump blasted Clinton for living “a sequestered life between gates and walls and guards,” an odd criticism for a man who has made a name for himself building skyscrapers with gaudy and extravagant decor and his name emblazoned in gold on the side. Not to mention his fascination with building his own private security army.
To the working class of America, Trump pledged: “I will be your voice”—despite having been the beneficiary of a large inheritance and his place in the billionaire class. And he called Clinton “divisive,” which didn’t take into account his own unique divisiveness—and the insults he has heaved at prisoners of war and a Gold Star family.
But the most least convincing part of the speech, coming before a military audience, is when he focused on national security. It sounded hollow: He said the United States needed a “real plan for victory” against ISIS—but laid out no such plan; he said defense cuts needed to be reversed, but did not explain how he would counter expected Congressional resistance; he promised modern equipment for the National Guard, but couldn’t say how it would be paid for.
It felt like empty rhetoric—and he got an empty response in return.
—Nancy Youssef contributed reporting for this article.