President Donald Trump, who canceled his planned 16-day Christmas trip to Florida because of the partial government shutdown, spoke to members of the U.S. Armed Forces from the Oval Office via video conference on Dec. 25, thanking them for their service and sacrifices.
Trump spoke with members from all five military branches, stationed at posts around the world. Representatives of the Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy, Army, and Marine Corps—hailing from military bases in Guam, Qatar, Bahrain, and Alaska—took part in the Dec. 25 video call, according to the White House.
Just weeks ago, Trump, a major supporter and advocate of rebuilding the U.S. military, showed his appreciation during a Thanksgiving Day conference call with members of all five service branches.
In another historic boost for the military, Trump on Sept. 21 signed appropriations legislation that provided $86.5 billion in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the largest dollar amount in the history of the agency, according to the White House. The legislation provides $73.1 billion for medical care for seven million patients, among other services.
Facing a monitor with multiple screens, Trump told his interlocutors that there is “no greater privilege for me than to serve as your commander.”
The Christmas call to troops comes days after Trump, on Dec. 19, announced the decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, explaining that the ISIS terrorist group was already defeated and that the troops had no other purpose for staying in the Middle Eastern country. Defense Secretary James Mattis, who has resigned, signed the order Dec. 23 to withdraw the U.S. forces, the Pentagon said.
Trump responded on Twitter to some criticisms of the withdrawal, arguing that the United States gains nothing from being the policeman of the Middle East, aside from “precious lives and trillions of dollars” lost. He said that it was “time for others to finally fight.”
Heart to Heart
First addressing the Army, Trump commended the branch as “the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.” He emphasized that it was “a great sacrifice” for them to be away from their families, before adding that every American family was eternally grateful for their service.
Soldiers from the Army Task Force Talon at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam were addressed by the president, as well as their commander Lt. Col. Johannes Castro. Trump also praised the task force’s response to Typhoon Yutu.
Moving on to the next call with the Marine Attack Squadron 223, Trump praised the unit “known as the Great American Bulldogs,” for how they dealt with adversity even before deploying to Bahrain when Hurricane Florence struck their home base at Cherry Point, North Carolina.
Next, Trump spoke with Capt. Benjamin Allbritton, chief of staff of Naval Forces Central Command, also stationed in Bahrain. He commended the U.S. maritime forces, which he said “strike fear into the adversaries by projecting the awesome strength of American power.”
Trump then focused on the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing from the Air Force, in Qatar, and its commander, Brig. Gen. Jason Armagost. He described the unit as “a grand-slam wing.” During an exchange with Armagost, the president asked: “How are they doing in Qatar? How are they doing getting together with Saudi Arabia and UAE? What’s the latest word?”
Armagost responded by praising Qatar as hosts and for burden-sharing.
“We don’t track necessarily the political … of Saudi Arabia and UAE with regards to Qatar, but … they’re great to us,” he added.
From Juneau, Alaska, members of Coast Guard District 17 were hailed by the president for saving “265 lives” in the past year. Trump made a point of praising the Coast Guard in general for its response “in Texas,” an apparent reference to their response to Hurricane Harvey.
“They saved thousands of lives,” he added. “If there was ever a score on branding, I think the Coast Guard in this country would have probably increased by the highest score of any group.”
Trump pushed a point about getting U.S. allies to share more of the costs of defense, a point he has repeatedly made during his presidency.
“We don’t want to be subsidizing rich countries at a disadvantage to us,” he said. “That makes me a little bit different than any other president, because nobody used to ask these questions.”
“Right now, we are the policeman of the world and we’re paying for it,” Trump added later, on the same theme. “And we can be the policeman of the world, but other countries have to help us.”
Toward the end of the roughly 20-minute holiday call with service members, Trump preceded to take some questions from reporters. Responding to whether he had confidence in Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to stabilize the stock markets, the president said: “Yes, I do. Very talented guy, a very smart person.”
Trump continued, adding that he believes the Federal Reserve is raising interest rates too fast.
“The fact is that the economy is doing so well that they raised interest rates, and that’s a form of safety,” he said. “President Obama didn’t do much of that.”
A separate video posted from the White House features the president and First Lady Melania Trump, sitting side by side, as they reflected on the values of the holiday season. The first lady also thanked the military and law enforcement, adding that they hope for a “future of peace on earth.”
In one of his final messages to American troops before his departure, Mattis wished a Merry Christmas to all the service members in a video message on Dec. 24.
On Dec. 23, Trump announced that Mattis will be leaving the administration on Jan. 1, about two months earlier than the previously planned departure date. He’s named Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan to become acting secretary of defense.
“To all you lads and lasses holding the line in 2018 on land, at sea, or in the air, thanks for keeping the faith. Merry Christmas and may God hold you safe,” the retired four-star general said.
Mattis also sent a holiday letter to the troops, in which he said the military has “earned the gratitude and respect of your fellow citizens, and it remains my great privilege to serve alongside you.”
In his resignation letter, Mattis highlighted policy differences he had with the president. His letter came on the heels of Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.