President Trump is comprehensively unfit for his job. He’s bad at the big, historically important stuff, like understanding legislation and how it gets passed, setting coherent diplomatic goals and then pursuing a rational strategy for advancing them, and not orchestrating crimes against humanity.
But he’s every bit as bad at the little things. The man is simply incapable of fulfilling his most basic responsibilities as the figurehead of the American State — responsibilities like giving a speech to the Boy Scout Jamboree without bringing up the orgies he once attended on his friend’s yacht, or making a condolence call to the bereaved widow of a fallen soldier without insinuating that her husband was responsible for his own death, or hosting a White House solar eclipse party without staring directly into the sun, or meeting with Vietnam veterans about their health-care concerns without getting into fight about whether he understands the difference between napalm and Agent Orange better than they do.
That last failure was just revealed by the Daily Beast Friday morning.
One of the first things that Trump did as president — after more than a year of campaigning as a champion of veterans’ interests — was to name reality star Omarosa Manigault Newman as the White House point person for veterans’ issues.
This did not please veterans. Thus, to reassure the constituency, Trump and Omarosa met with the leadership of various veterans organizations at the White House in March of 2017. After everyone was settled in, the president went around the room asking the representatives from each group about what they were working on, and how his administration could further their aims. Rick Weidman, co-founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, told the president about how the number of Vietnam veterans who suffer from medical conditions caused by their exposure to Agent Orange (a notorious herbicidal weapon used by the U.S. during that war) is much higher than the government recognizes. For this reason, only a fraction of those who were poisoned by the chemical have access to the special health benefits that they should be entitled to, Weidman explained.
The veterans were perplexed — they had just explained to the president that the issue was not, in fact, taken care of. When Weidman and his allies tried to reiterate their concerns, the president interrupted to ask whether Agent Orange was “that stuff from that movie.”
The president did not specify what film he was referencing. But as the commander-in-chief continued rambling, it became clear that he was thinking of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now. Multiple Vietnam veterans informed the president that the chemical agent used in that scene was napalm, not Agent Orange.
Nevertheless, Trump persisted:
Trump refused to accept that he was mistaken and proceeded to say things like, “no, I think it’s that stuff from that movie.”
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.
In the many months since this encounter, the president has matched his failure to do right by Vietnam veterans on the minor matter of respecting their superior recall of Apocalypse Now, with betrayals on issues of greater import. On the controversy over privatization of the VA, Trump has allowed three of his golf buddies to override the preferences of most veterans organizations — going so far as to force the ouster of a VA chief who refused to prioritize the wishes of Mar-a-Lago members over those of American servicemen and women. Meanwhile, the administration is finalizing plans to weaken enforcement of the Military Lending Act, which bars predatory lenders from duping financially desperate veterans into usurious loans.