Early on in the Donald Trump administration, the president vested many of his nearest and dearest with tasks they were woefully unprepared for—and Apprentice superstar Omarosa Manigault-Newman was no exception.
Long before she was his chief antagonist, Manigault-Newman was tapped by President Trump to handle veterans’ issues for the White House—causing immediate backlash from vets organizations who read this as a slap in the face and a betrayal of his campaign rhetoric about “taking care of our veterans.”
After some vocal public shaming from military veterans and advocates, Trump, accompanied by Manigault-Newman, met with principals from various vets organizations in the Roosevelt Room on March 17, 2017.
The event nearly degenerated into a uniquely Trumpian trainwreck.
During this White House meeting, certain details of which have not been previously reported, the president managed to again annoy and confuse U.S. war veterans, this time by getting into a bizarre, protracted argument with Vietnam War vets present about the movie Apocalypse Now and the herbicide Agent Orange.
“It was really fucking weird,” one attendee bluntly assessed to The Daily Beast.
The meeting included President Trump and the envoys of nearly a dozen major vets groups—including the American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, American Veterans, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the right-leaning Concerned Veterans for America—as well as senior staffers such as Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, and Manigault-Newman surrounding the large table.
The president began going around the room asking the different representatives what they were working on and how his administration could help, having made veterans’ issues a cornerstone of his 2016 campaign rhetoric.
Soon, he got to Rick Weidman, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), who was one of Vietnam vets in the room that day, having served a tour of duty in 1969 as a medic. (Trump famously avoided military service in that disastrous war, ostensibly due to “bone spurs,” and had once said that his prolific sex life was his own “personal Vietnam.”)
According to two sources in the room who requested anonymity, this is when things went off the rails.
During the course of the meeting, Weidman brought up the issue of Agent Orange, an extremely notorious component of the U.S. herbicidal warfare on Vietnam. Weidman was imploring the president and his team to permit access to benefits for a broader number of vets who have said they were poisoned by Agent Orange.
Trump responded by saying, “That’s taken care of,” according to people in the room.
His reply puzzled the group.
Attendees began explaining to the president that the VA had not made enough progress on the issue at all, to which Trump responded by abruptly derailing the meeting and asking the attendees if Agent Orange was “that stuff from that movie.”
He did not initially name the film he was referencing, but it quickly became clear as Trump kept rambling that he was referring to the classic 1979 Francis Ford Coppola epic Apocalypse Now, and specifically the famous helicopter attack scene set to the “Ride of the Valkyries.”
Source present at the time tell The Daily Beast that multiple people—including Vietnam War veterans—chimed in to inform the president that the Apocalypse Now set piece he was talking about showcased the U.S. military using napalm, not Agent Orange.
Trump refused to accept that he was mistaken and proceeded to say things like, “no, I think it’s that stuff from that movie.”
One clue belying the president’s insistence is that the famous Robert Duvall line from the scene in Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” is not “I love the smell of Agent Orange in the morning.”
He then went around the room polling attendees about if it was, in fact, napalm or Agent Orange in the famous scene from “that movie,” as the gathering—organized to focus on important, sometimes life-or-death issues for veterans—descended into a pointless debate over Apocalypse Now that the president simply would not concede, despite all the available evidence.
Finally, Trump made eye contact again with Weidman and asked him if it was napalm or Agent Orange. The VVA co-founder assured Trump, as did several before him, that it was in fact napalm, and said that he didn’t like the Coppola film and believed it to be a disservice to Vietnam War veterans.
According to two people in attendance, Trump then flippantly replied to the Vietnam vet, “Well, I think you just didn’t like the movie,” before finally moving on.
The debate over Apocalypse Now in the Roosevelt Room lasted at least two minutes, according to estimates from those who endured it. The president was not able to call on everyone at the roundtable by the end of the event, in part due to these types of tangents.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Weidman told The Daily Beast that he does “hate that movie,” and while he did not go into specifics of this part of the meeting, he did confirm that Trump “said something where it was clear he was confused by napalm and Agent Orange.”
Conway, White House counselor to Trump, told The Daily Beast that Trump and his administration had been committed to “swift and consequential action” for veterans since the dawn of the Trump era.
“This president has been a reliable friend to veterans and has taken bold action to measurably improve their lives, including the VA Choice Act, VA Mission Act, VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, and the 24/7 veterans hotline,” Conway noted. “President Trump donated his quarterly salary to the Veterans Administration, and took action to allow vets to use their GI Bill education benefits at any time during their lifetime, and process their disability claims more quickly than ever before.”
Still, in the nearly year and a half since that meeting in the Roosevelt Room, some of the military veterans in attendance continue to find the administration’s record to be lacking, at best.
According to Weidman, VVA brought up two main issues to Trump that day: the Agent Orange matter, and making those who have an “administrative discharge” rather than an “honorable discharge” on their record eligible for benefits.
“[Many of] these kids have PTSD, and instead of treating them, they get kicked out and are not eligible for the GI Bill, the VA, nothing,” Weidman explained.
Weidman said he was “cautiously optimistic” after Trump appeared “very interested” and receptive at the White House. In the time since, however, his careful optimism has shrunk considerably.
“We tried to follow up on this, and couldn’t get anywhere,” Weidman said.
As for Trump, “we have no idea if he’s going to show up or not” when they try to meet with him nowadays, Weidman added. “It’s usually [White House Chief of Staff John] Kelly, or somebody even lower.”
Other veterans who were present at the March 2017 meeting did, however, express relief to The Daily Beast that one of senior officials who stopped showing up was Trump’s former “Apprentice.”
The Roosevelt Room meeting would be the final high-profile instance of veterans organizations having to deal with Manigault-Newman, then an assistant to the president and the communications director for the White House Office of Public Liaison. By April of last year, veterans’ issues had been removed from Manigault-Newman’s poorly defined portfolio, with other aides picking up the slack.
It wasn’t because Trump or anyone else who outranked Manigault-Newman took it from her.
According to current and former Trump aides, she simply “lost interest” in the topic, in the words of one of the current White House officials, and tried, and spectacularly failed, to model herself as Team Trump’s top black-outreach czar.
Veterans’ groups were, to put it mildly, not sad to see her go.
“During one meeting [in February 2017], she showed up late, interrupted us, and said she was taking the lead,” said a veterans’ advocate who dealt with her during the presidential transition and early White House days.
She explained to the incredulous veterans that she was qualified to do so because she once served as a chaplain with the California State Military Reserve.
—With additional reporting by Lachlan Markay