Trump to address veterans group that once called his comments 'despicable'

PHOTO: President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 18, 2018, in Washington, DC.PlayOlivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images, FILE
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President Donald Trump will address the Veterans of Foreign Wars annual convention in Kansas City, Mo. Tuesday, in a rare appearance in front of an organization that has been unafraid to issue public rebukes of his past incendiary comments.

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While the president enjoys generally high support levels throughout the military community, the VFW has openly bristled at several of the more controversial moments of his campaign and time as commander-in-chief, even as the group has publicly partnered with the White House on various initiatives to shore up the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

“I think he'll be well received and in fact I think in the air is a tone of excitement already,” incoming VFW national commander Vincent Lawrence said in an interview with ABC News. “I think they want to hear the message the president has to bring us, there's a lot of issues that our membership and our veterans are highly concerned in.”

Lawrence declined to comment on the group’s past criticism of Trump.

Early in Trump's campaign for the presidency, when then-candidate Trump lashed out at Sen. John McCain, the VFW described Trump's comments that McCain was not a war hero because he was captured as "despicable," and even alluded to Trump's own draft deferments during the Vietnam War.

The group also rushed to the defense of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim parents of a slain U.S. soldier, who the president attacked after they criticized him in a stirring speech at the 2016 Democratic national convention.

“If you look at his wife, she was standing there, she had nothing to say, she probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say, you tell me," Trump said in an interview with ABC News when asked for a reaction to their speech.

“Election year or not, the VFW will not tolerate anyone berating a Gold Star family member for exercising his or her right of speech or expression,” said Brian Duffy, who served as national commander of the VFW at the time.

Despite those public statements, though, Trump received a largely positive reception in a campaign-style speech to the VFW's 2016 convention in which he attacked Hillary Clinton, provoking "lock her up" chants from the audience.

Following the president's election, as the VFW has engaged directly with the White House on veterans' issues, the group has issued few statements criticizing the president directly.

In the wake of the unrest in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017, the VFW issued a statement expressing condolences for the family of Heather Heyer, along with an unequivocal condemnation of the white supremacist groups involved in the protests. President Donald Trump was roundly criticized at the time when he blamed “both sides” for the violence that erupted amid the demonstrations and said there were “very fine people” among the white nationalist groups.

“Individuals and organizations who wave Nazi flags, and who use the First Amendment as both shield and sword, must be rooted out of our society and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for fueling hate,” VFW National Commander Keith Harman said in a statement at the time. “There is no place in any civilized society for their ilk.”

The VFW has also made clear its position as a vocal opponent of any potential attempts by Trump appointees to privatize the VA. In February, the organization issued a terse statement prior to the departure of former secretary David Shulkin regarding reports that officials in the VA were seeking to publicly undermine him in hopes of installing someone more friendly to the concept of privatization.

“As reported in the press, the acts of these individuals have become a cancer inside this Administration,” Harman said. “They sow doubt, they create turmoil, and their ideological agenda clearly puts outside interests ahead of the care and well-being of millions of wounded, ill and injured veterans. I now call on President Trump to clean house of these distractors.”

Following Shulkin’s ouster, the VFW expressed some skepticism over Trump’s announcement that he’d appoint his White House physician Adm. Ronny Jackson, citing his lack of apparent qualifications in running the massive agency.

But the group has since expressed support for Robert Wilkie, who was confirmed Monday by the Senate as the next VA Secretary after Adm. Jackson withdrew his nomination in April.

“As an organization we're absolutely against privatization, we believe that the VA is best equipped and best trained to take care of our nation's veterans and to provide the vital health care that our nation deserves,” Lawrence told ABC News Monday.

The president’s speech Tuesday comes as the VFW issued a statement praising his diplomatic efforts with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, though Lawrence declined to weigh in on the president’s latest late-night threat directed towards Iran on Sunday that some have argued raises the potential for direct conflict.

“Our focus is here at home and that's what we're going to continue,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said the group hopes to hear more in the president's speech regarding the ongoing U.S. negotiations with North Korea on the return of the remains of Americans who were prisoners of war or missing in action during the Korean War.

U.S. and North Korean delegations met twice last week to discuss the issue, but no definitive timeline has been revealed on when the repatriations will begin or how many remains North Korea has in its possession.