Inside Donald Trump's Complex Relationship with the Military

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures while speaking at a rally at Macomb Community College, Friday, March 4, 2016, in Warren, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures while speaking at a rally at Macomb Community College, Friday, March 4, 2016, in Warren, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee is on the defensive again in the wake of news reports that question his claims of raising $6 million for wounded veterans in a fundraiser and of contributing $1 million personally to veterans' causes.

Donald Trump's latest comments were the tipping point for Marine veteran Alexander McCoy, a former embassy security guard who staged a protest with fellow vets outside Trump Tower in New York City on Monday, rallying under the slogan #VetsVsHate.

"It's particularly galling that [Trump] would use the good will Americans have for men and women in uniform and try to ride their coattails," McCoy told "It isn't about how much money he raised; obviously, we're thankful to get any money at all. What's troubling to me is the way he was doing it and the fact there seems to be no rhyme or reason to what happened to this money."

For McCoy, questions about Trump's fundraising for vets are the latest concern in a series of troubling and incendiary statements about defense policy and insults to those who served.

McCoy cited Trump's 2015 putdown of Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war -- "I like people who weren't captured;" his March statements endorsing torture and criticizing the Geneva Convention; and his support of nuclear proliferation as examples of things that make Trump a "uniquely terrifying" presidential candidate, particularly for troops.

"Just being a military veteran does not make someone necessarily have a deeper understanding of foreign policy, but it does give you a somewhat closer relationship to the stakes of foreign policy," McCoy said.

But according to the results of a Military Times survey published earlier this month, McCoy may be in the minority among troops and veterans.

The survey of 951 active-duty subscribers to the publication found 54 percent supported Trump, while 25 percent supported Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders did only slightly better, with 38 percent of the vote against Trump's 51 percent.

While the polling data isn't scientific and is pulled from a self-selecting subset of active-duty troops, the numbers are striking. Why does Trump appear to have such a decisive advantage with the military?

Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University and the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, told that the tendency of the military to skew conservative played a role.

Previous Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney held about the same advantage over incumbent Barack Obama in 2012 as Trump does over Clinton now, and McCain had a margin of support that was some 5 percentage points wider in 2008, according to Military Times survey data.

Just as instructive, Feaver said, was the high number of troops in the Times survey who indicated they would refuse to vote given the options. In a Trump-Clinton contest, 21 percent of troops said they would not vote. If Trump faced Sanders, according to the survey, 11 percent of respondents said they would abstain.

"Another truth about the general public [that is also true for the military] is that neither of these candidates is very popular," Feaver said. "You have unusually high numbers of people saying, 'well, neither,' or something like that."

Even though Trump has weathered a series of scandals related to his McCain comments, his policy remarks, and the revelation in late 2015 that he "always felt like he was in the military" because he had attended a military-themed prep school, Clinton has not capitalized on the outrage, Feaver said.

With no clear military ties and a record tainted in the minds of many conservatives by the death of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 while she was secretary of state, she may be especially ill-poised to cash in on her opponent's missteps, he said.

"[Clinton] has a team of advisers who would earn high marks from senior military, and so if you were talking to general officer or flag officers and say, 'How comfortable would you be with interagency policy-making in a Clinton administration?' they would say, 'Yeah, we can live with that,' " Feaver said. "But that's different from inspiring the rank and file to enthusiastically endorse her."

McCoy, while critical of the Military Times survey's limitations and methods, had his own theory about what might be driving Trump's support in the military.

"Members of the American military are justifiably frustrated with the challenges of being at war for so long, the challenges of budget cuts and personnel cuts. And there's a lot of anger over the lack of promotion opportunities and the lack of other opportunities that are no longer available because of those challenges," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me if that frustration is manifesting in people saying they support Donald Trump."

On the other side of the spectrum, Trump's comments have prompted some conservative veterans to galvanize against him.

Sarah Feinberg, a former Marine logistics officer who left the service as a captain in 2012, launched the Facebook page "Marines Against War Crimes" in March with another veteran to protest Trump's comments regarding the Geneva convention and torture. With little promotion and maintenance, the page quickly collected nearly 450 supporters.

In conversations with other veterans, Feinberg said, "generally we thought that Trump was a buffoon because he wasn't putting forward any type of policy."

Those conversations changed, she said, when Trump started to discuss banning the travel of Muslims to the United States, and then saying he would "take out" the families of terrorists in retribution for the terrorists' actions.

"At that point it changed, completely," Feinberg said. "We were in shock."

For her, Trump's rhetoric should matter most to troops who may serve under him if he becomes commander-in-chief.

"He's saying publicly he does not respect the rule of law, he does not respect our military," she said. "It's scary that there are 18-year-olds out there who are listening to this rhetoric."

A staunch conservative, Feinberg said she planned to vote for Clinton if no third-party candidate emerged as a legitimate contender.

While Trump has so far seemed immune among the general public to pushback from his more outrageous comments, Feaver pointed out that in civilian polling groups, information about his business failures that hurt working-class people seemed most damaging to his support.

It remains to be seen whether investigations into Trump's claims of veterans fundraising prove a crack in his armor for troops.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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