NEW YORK — For more than 50 years, every American president has been forced to grapple, in one way or another, with the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Now it's Donald Trump's turn.
The ghosts of Vietnam are stirring anew, just as Trump prepares to visit the nation on his first presidential tour of Asia. Vietnam war hero Sen. John McCain, who spent more than five years in a prisoner of war camp after his plane was shot down, this week put an unwelcome spotlight on Trump's five draft deferments to avoid military service. And Trump's prolonged political tussle over the proper way for presidents to honor and grieve with the families of fallen soldiers has focused attention on his lack of military service as well.
Trump tried to set all that aside Monday as he presented the Medal of Honor to retired Capt. Gary Rose, a Vietnam era medic who repeatedly ran into the line of enemy fire and ignored his own wounds to save his colleagues during a fierce firefight in enemy-controlled territory in September 1970.
“Mike, this is serious stuff,” Trump said. “Your love for your fellow soldier, your devotion to your country inspires us all.”
But the matter of Trump's lack of service wasn't far off stage.
McCain, the Arizona Republican who has frequently clashed with the president, made clear he had Trump in mind Monday as he criticized the Vietnam draft system that forced low-income Americans to serve while the wealthy could avoid war with a doctor's note. Trump, the son of a millionaire developer, received draft deferments, one attained with a physician's letter stating that he suffered from bone spurs in his feet.
“I don't consider him so much a draft dodger as I feel that the system was so wrong that certain Americans could evade their responsibilities to serve the country,” McCain said on ABC's “The View.” McCain was being pressed about earlier comments on C-SPAN in which he lamented that the military “drafted the lowest income level of America and the highest income level found a doctor that would say they had a bone spur.”
When a host on the ABC show remarked that people thought McCain had been talking about Trump on C-SPAN because the president had sought a medical deferment, McCain interjected, “More than once, yes.”
Over the decades, Vietnam has become shorthand for a bogged-down military conflict, a comparison invoked during more recent struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has served as a cautionary lesson about the political peril for presidents ensnared in prolonged overseas military operations.
President Lyndon Johnson abandoned his re-election quest after an escalation in the war led to more American deaths, while President Richard Nixon took fierce criticism for expanding the conflict. President Bill Clinton's wartime deferment before he entered the Vietnam draft generated considerable heat during the 1992 presidential campaign.
More recently, questions about the service of George W. Bush and John Kerry were prominent in the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard but faced scrutiny over his status and why he was never deployed overseas. Kerry was a decorated veteran who threw away his medals and testified against the war before Congress. His service record was questioned in campaign ads.
Obama, the first post-Vietnam president, positioned himself as the one who might heal the rift between those who served and those who didn't. Although he, too, was burdened with lessons of the war.
“Let us resolve that when America sends our sons and daughters into harm's way, we will always give them a clear mission; we will always give them a sound strategy; we will give them the equipment they need to get the job done,” Obama said at a visit to the Vietnam Memorial in 2012. “We will have their backs.”
Trump is slated to make his first presidential trip to Vietnam early next month as part of his 12-day, five-nation Asia tour. He will participate in an international summit in Da Nang before meeting the Vietnamese president in Hanoi. The White House said Monday it had not been decided if Trump would visit any war sites, like the prison where McCain was held.
Trump ignited a feud with McCain in July 2015 when he belittled the senator's time in captivity.
“He's not a war hero,” said Trump. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured.”
Trump once compared his ability to avoid sexually transmitted diseases in the Manhattan dating scene of the 1980s and 1990s to the perils of wartime that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 Americans in Vietnam.
“It is a dangerous world out there,” Trump said in a 1997 interview with shock jock Howard Stern. “It's like Vietnam, sort of. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
The renewed focus on Trump's lack of service in Vietnam comes as he faces scrutiny over his treatment of the families of America's war dead.
Trump has been pushing back against criticism from the family of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson, killed this month in Niger, that he was disrespectful in his condolence call to the new widow.
Trump has steadfastly denied the claim. But the Johnsons are not the only family of a slain solider to be angry at Trump.
The family of Capt. Ben Cross of Bethel, Maine, who was one of three Marines killed in an MV-22 Osprey crash in August off the coast of Australia, received a condolence letter from Trump on Friday.
The family questioned the timing of the letter, which arrived via overnight mail after the controversy over Gold Star families had erupted.
“I think that anyone who received five deferrals in order to avoid military service is unfit to be commander in chief and even less qualified to console a grieving family who has lost a loved one defending our country,” Cross’ brother Ryan said Monday. “He doesn't know the first thing about service or sacrifice.”