For someone who claims he can change the world overnight — stop wars, illegal immigration, Muslims and trade deals — Donald Trump has been as slow as sludge in accounting for the money he bragged about raising for veterans in January.
Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, admitted May 20 that he didn’t have an “exact number” of what was taken in, nor could he say which veterans groups would get what.
Last week, Trump finally released a $1 million personal donation he had pledged four months ago, at a fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, organized as counter-programming to a debate of Republican candidates moderated by Fox’s Megyn Kelly that he had decided to boycott in a fit of pique.
When asked by a Washington Post reporter whether he had made good on the promise only because he was taking so much flak, Trump said, “You know, you’re a nasty guy.”
As for the remaining $5 million or so Trump has claimed to have raised, he tried to put that matter to rest at a news conference and public accounting at Trump Tower in New York on Tuesday. He said the biggest chunk of what is so far $5.6 million raised was his pledge of $1 million for the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, a group that honored him last year.
He listed the other beneficiaries one by one. The delays and inconsistencies that he said had been unfairly chronicled by the press occurred because he “didn’t want credit” for his generosity.
This could have been a win, but Trump can’t stop even when he’s ahead. He spent the next half hour calling out his perceived enemies.
An ABC reporter was a “sleaze,” others were “disgusting” for asking him to clarify his conflicting claims about the money raised. He sought to justify earlier attacks on fellow Republicans such as Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico, saying she’d been “not nice” to him so he’d taken a “jab” at her. And he took after Mitt Romney as a “fool” and a “choker” who walks like a penguin.
The money to veterans is important. Trump believes money can buy love, and he’s made getting love from veterans a cornerstone of his campaign. He’s not a natural given that he escaped the draft and even insulted Sen. John McCain, a bona fide war hero. When Trump had his chance to fight in Vietnam in 1968, he instead got multiple student deferments and, when those ran out, a medical one for bone spurs.
That didn’t stop him from using the war as a metaphor of his life. In a 1997 interview with Howard Stern, he likened avoiding sexually transmitted diseases to his “personal Vietnam.” Fighting off gonorrhea and the like made him “feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
Compensating for that alone would eat up the money raised. It would take untold millions more to forget his claim that McCain, shot down and kept in a cage for five years, hung by his broken arms, beaten and tortured, was “not a war hero.” “I like people that weren’t captured, OK?”
This may be why Trump was less conquering hero than he expected to be when he showed up at the annual Rolling Thunder gathering of bikers and veterans in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend.
He’d rejected the call by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (a wounded veteran himself) to use the occasion to apologize to POWs and instead gave his usual speech with a few promises: “Thousands of people are dying waiting in line to see a doctor. That is not going to happen anymore.”
He shouted that “Illegal immigrants are taken much better care of by this country than our veterans,” a typical Trump twofer that elevated one group by stoking resentment of another.
He kept saying “We love the vets,” even as the most memorable moment was how much they let him down. Of the tens of thousands of vets who roared into town, only a fraction made it on to the Mall to listen to him: “I thought this would be like Dr. Martin Luther King where people would be lined up from here all the way to the Washington Monument.”
The allusion to the “I Have a Dream Speech” was breathtaking, but his towering ego couldn’t stop there. He said that there were actually 600,000 people wanting to attend his speech who couldn’t get in because an unnamed “they” didn’t let them.
Those who believe Trump is stable enough to be president should watch the Tuesday news conference, which was billed by his campaign as a long-awaited accounting to vets but turned into a wild ride to the dark side of Trump’s acid resentments against the press, against anyone who hasn’t been “nice” to him.
Slipped in was a rewrite of his remarks at the Rolling Thunder rally: Of course, he wasn’t expecting a “I Have a Dream” moment. It was all a joke that he was disappointed. He can’t bear to be seen as his favorite epithet, a loser. But when you rip defeat from the jaws of victory, that’s what you are.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.