Yet Trump’s record tells a different story. All three of his hand-picked defense secretaries had ties to the defense industry: Jim Mattis was a member of the General Dynamics board of directors, Pat Shanahan was an executive with Boeing, and Mark Esper was Raytheon’s top lobbyist. Mattis also returned to his board position shortly after leaving the Pentagon, showing the revolving door between industry and the Defense Department.
Nearly half of senior Defense Department officials are connected to military contractors, according to an analysis by the Project on Government Oversight.
But beyond personnel choices, Trump has made the purchase, public display and foreign sales of military hardware a major priority of his administration.
He has championed two defense budgets that blew past $700 billion, and is preparing to sign a third. The bill that Trump signed in 2018 locked in the largest budget the Pentagon had ever seen, only to top it the following year.
He also approved more than $55.6 billion in foreign weapons sales in fiscal 2018, his first complete fiscal year in office, compared to $33.6 billion in foreign military sales in fiscal 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.
The idea that Trump is taking on the defense industrial base is “pure fantasy,” National Security Action, a liberal advocacy group composed of former Obama administration staffers, said on Tuesday. “Trump has consistently prioritized the financial interests of America’s defense contractors — and, in doing so, turned our values and long-term interests into collateral damage.”
Trump’s Monday comments create a “false narrative,” said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners. He pointed to not only the amount of defense spending in Trump’s administration, but also his repeated attempts to showcase military equipment during national celebrations.
“It’s bizarrely inconsistent,” Callan said, pointing to Trump’s affinity for military parades and flyovers.
In a new book by former family friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, Trump is said to have wanted his inauguration to look more like Pyongyang than Washington.
“I want tanks and choppers. Make it look like North Korea,” he said, according to the author.
Beyond the parades, Trump also regularly speaks in front of military equipment, using fighter planes, ships and ground vehicles as backdrops. The F-35 is a standard part of his rally speeches. He routinely touts weapons sales when meeting with foreign leaders. He even brought up military spending hikes during the White House Easter Egg Roll last year.
And industry insiders who spoke to POLITICO say they don’t expect any of that to change, even after Trump’s comments on Monday.
“He has a really long history of really pushing the defense industry forward and bragging about large defense budgets and talking about F-35s and rockets and things like that, so I just don’t think anyone thinks there’s a lot of reality behind what he’s saying,” one industry official told POLITICO, speaking on background to discuss a sensitive topic.
Investors also seemed to place no faith in the president’s latest comments. “I haven’t gotten a call on it from anyone who is like, ‘Oh my god, Byron, should I sell all my defense stocks?” Callan said. “I found it a bizarre statement. It makes no sense, but I could see him flip 180 degrees in a week.”
One top general on Tuesday pushed back against the president’s remarks, albeit indirectly. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, while declining to directly respond to Trump’s comments, defended military leaders, saying those in uniform are not thinking about defense contractors’ earnings when deciding to send troops to war.
“Many of these leaders have sons and daughters who have gone to combat or may be in combat right now. So I can assure the American people that senior leaders would only recommend sending troops to combat when it’s required in national security, or as a last resort,” McConville said during an event held Tuesday by Defense One. “I feel very strong about it.”
The pushback from McConville was just the latest sign of tensions between Trump and the military, coming days after the Atlantic quoted anonymous sources claiming the president has referred to wounded and dead troops as “suckers” and “losers.” The administration denies Trump said anything of the sort; other news outlets have confirmed elements of the story.
The White House doubled down on Trump’s view of military spending on Tuesday, though White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said Trump was not attacking a particular general or civilian secretary.
“This president is consistent about one thing: If we’re going to send our sons and daughters abroad to fight on our behalf, he’s not going to let some lobbyist here in Washington, D.C., just because they want a new defense contract, suggest that they need to stay abroad one minute longer than they should,” Meadows told reporters outside the White House.
Trump has also made an aggressive push to sell weapons overseas. In 2017, he took credit for a deal to sell arms worth $110 billion to the Saudis, although many of the deals were negotiated under Obama. Trump touted the jobs created by the deal, which will specifically benefit major primes such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, former White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said in a 2017 briefing.
Trump allowed arms sales to continue to Saudi Arabia even after the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In an interview at the time, Trump said if the U.S. didn’t sell to Riyadh, the Saudis would buy their arms from China and Russia.
Trump doesn’t pass up opportunities to tout military equipment, and in the past has brought up the topic at odd times. He praised the “invisible” F-35 during a 2017 Thanksgiving speech to members of the Coast Guard, a service that does not operate the fighter jet. In a 2017 visit to Boeing’s South Carolina facility for the unveiling of the 787 Dreamliner aircraft, he closed his remarks by saying “God bless Boeing.”
Early in his presidency, Trump did take on some major programs that he felt were bad deals for the Defense Department, including claiming savings due to his personal involvement in negotiations on the F-35 and Air Force One. Tom Spoehr, an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, pointed to these actions as evidence that Trump is unafraid to challenge the industrial base and cut costs for the nation. He added that the president has a “hot and cold relationship” with industry, where he pushes back on some programs while maintaining seemingly close ties to some defense CEOs.
Mandy Smithberger, the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, commended Trump for being critical of over-budget programs such as the F-35 and the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier, or for questioning whether the U.S. should be involved in decades-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But she hasn’t seen him take action to reduce the level of spending or to tone down his rhetoric on weapons.
“He’s raising important criticisms, but I haven’t seen a lot of follow through,” she said.
Lara Seligman and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.