Retired high-ranking admirals are taking aim at the Donald Trump presidential campaign, outraged over the mogul’s questioning of Senator John McCain’s war record—and even saying they couldn’t imagine serving under him if he were to ever become commander in chief.
“Personally, I hope no one will be called upon to serve under a President T… I can’t bring myself to type the words,” retired Rear Admiral John Hutson, who once served as the Navy’s top lawyer, told The Daily Beast. “This kind of ad hominem name calling is beneath contempt… Senator McCain endured years of the cruelest, most inhuman treatment imaginable with intrepidity and honor.”
“I would not want to serve under anyone who thinks this is an appropriate comment,” said Donald J. Guter, a retired rear admiral and formerly the Navy’s top uniformed lawyer. “I cannot respect such comments from anyone, but especially from one who never served.”
After McCain labeled Trump’s supporters “crazies” in an interview with The New Yorker on Wednesday, Trump retaliated with a series of insults, culminating with his remarks about McCain’s military service at the Family Leadership Summit in Iowa on Saturday. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”
The fallout was immediate, and marked a turning point for Trump, who had, for the first month of his presidential campaign, been afforded the right to say just about anything—memorably, that undocumented Mexican immigrants are criminals and “rapists”—without widespread condemnation from elected officials and political leaders. The insult to McCain’s record was different, however. Within hours of its utterance, nearly every single Republican primary contender had taken to social media to voice their support for McCain or their disgust with Trump.
And it wasn’t just them—veterans groups and veterans themselves have taken deep offense to Trump’s remarks, especially given Trump never served in the Vietnam War, as the Arizona senator did. Trump instead received a medical deferment in 1968.
Jon Soltz, a veteran and founder of the progressive group VoteVets, said he approached Trump at a fundraiser in 2007, asking the businessman if he would like to help Afghanistan and Iraq vets get elected. “Send me a letter,” Trump responded abruptly, before turning his back, according to Soltz.
“VoteVets and John McCain are at odds weekly,” Soltz told The Daily Beast, “but we do respect his service, and what he did in Vietnam by not leaving [when offered a chance by his captors] was heroic. Republicans and Democrats who have a service background think what Donald Trump said was terrible.”
McCain appeared on Monday afternoon at a press conference with Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, and Joe Lieberman, the one-time Democrat from Connecticut. The senators, dubbed “the Three Amigos” by General David Petraeus, were ostensibly in the gilded, second-floor ballroom at 3 West Club in Midtown Manhattan to discuss the Iran deal and promote the presidential candidacy of Graham—but first there would need to be a few words about Trump.
“Some people say that John McCain is not an American hero,” Graham began. “I say John McCain and everybody like him is an American hero. And I say thank God that John McCain is the chairman of the [Senate] Armed Services Committee. And to anybody that suggests that John and his fellow POWs are somehow lacking in the title of being called American heroes, you shouldn’t be our commander in chief, because you don’t know our military.”
Retired Air Force Major General Charles Dunlap, now the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University, wouldn’t go quite that far. “Regardless of who the citizenry picks as its commander in chief, I believe the U.S. military would salute smartly and do its best to carry out its mission of national defense,” Dunlap said.
But Dunlap made it clear that Trump’s remarks made him see red. “Vets need not defend Senator McCain’s war-hero status as in my mind it isn’t open to discussion; it’s an irrefutable fact,” he said.
Retired Air Force Captain Robert Certain was captured when he, like McCain, crashed over Vietnam. Certain ended up spending most of his 100 days of captivity inside a North Vietnamese prison, in 1973, the same year McCain’s captivity ended. For Certain, Trump’s comments harkened to a time dating back to World War II when war captives were considered cowards or failures for having been captured. To suggest one POW was a coward is to attack thousands of POWs, including the hundreds of the Vietnam War, Certain told The Daily Beast.
“Mr. Trump’s comments were flippant and irresponsible. He spoke about every one of us who were prisoners of war. That is a broad brush that insults several hundred people and what it means to serve,” said Certain, whose B-52G was hit by two surface-to-air-missiles, leading to his capture. “I have no further use for this person, and the Republican Party should throw him out.”
Certain was an Air Force navigator when he took part in the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, the largest bombing campaign by B-52s of the war. Also known as Operation Linebacker II, it was President Nixon’s attempt to hasten the end of the war. Instead, the dangerous mission led to the capture of scores of U.S. service members, including Certain. And while it did enormous damage to the North Vietnamese’s infrastructure and led to the death of at least 1,000, it did not break their will to fight.
Certain noted that McCain could have ended his 5½ years of torture sooner but chose to not skip ahead of other POWs because it was not his turn.
“That took a great deal of courage,” said Certain.
Certain, along with two others, were captured immediately after their badly damaged plane crashed near Hanoi. His captors showed Certain, Major Richard E. Johnson, the radar navigator, and Captain Richard T. Simpson, electronics warfare officer, the bodies of their fallen comrades. The three were released in Operation Homecoming, a series of diplomatic negotiations that led the North Vietnamese to release 591 American prisoners of war.
Certain stressed that he and other POWs are not “overly sensitive,” but reject broad attacks.
“When [Trump] attacks one for not having courage, it is an attack on all of us,” Certain said.
Taylor Stockdale, the son of Admiral James Bond Stockdale, a Medal of Honor recipient and former POW, wrote Trump a letter in response to his remarks, which was obtained by The Daily Beast. In it, Stockdale wrote that it was “ironic that the Presidential candidate with the most bravado and the facade of toughness, is the one who violated” the underlying principle of POWs: that they stay true to themselves and their country. “I would attempt to tell you how hurtful your remarks are to the men and their families who were there all those years,” Stockdale wrote, “but I don’t believe you have the capacity to understand.”
At the press conference, Lieberman questioned Trump’s patriotism, saying that the reality show star “needs me to respond to his glib and thoughtless and un-American remarks.”
Trump, as to be expected, has refused to apologize to McCain or his fellow POWs. In statements, by way of explanation for his outlash, he has claimed to be offended by McCain’s record of vets’ rights, which he says is lacking. He points to his own record (not the draft dodging and lying about it—that he ignores) helping to build the Vietnam War Memorial in New York City in the early 1980s, when he served on the commission assembled by Mayor Ed Koch, and donated $1 million and helped raise $1 million more as evidence that he is a better advocate for their interests.
No one who knows anything seems to be buying that. But it so far hasn’t hurt Trump much in the polls. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday shows him with a considerable lead.