White House tries to walk back Trump attack on Pentagon chiefs as beholden to arms dealers

"They want to do nothing but fight wars," Trump said of top Pentagon officials.

September 8, 2020, 4:07 PM

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Tuesday tried to walk back an attack from President Donald Trump on the nation's military leaders in which he claimed "the top people in the Pentagon" aren't happy with him because he wants to get the U.S. out of wars while they are beholden to arms dealers.

Meadows told White House reporters Tuesday morning that he had spoken with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other top officials, claiming they know Trump's striking comments Monday weren't aimed at them.

"Those comments are not directed specifically at them as much as it is what we all know happens in Washington, D.C. 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 lobbyists 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," he said.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speaks to members of the press outside the West Wing of the White House on Aug. 28, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images, FILE

"That comment was more directed about the military industrial complex," Meadows continued, adding that no other president has been as good as Trump at giving "the equipment to our military men and women that need it."

Esper is a former defense industry lobbyist for Raytheon.

Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a Defense Department spokesman told ABC News Tuesday that “Secretary Esper is committed to serving as long as the Commander in Chief wants him to.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville was asked directly Tuesday morning whether the military is beholden to defense contractors at a Defense One online event.

"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 the senior leaders would only recommend sending our troops to combat when it's required in national security in the last resort. We take this very, very seriously in how we make our recommendations," McConville said.

At a White House news conference Monday, Trump, in attacking Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden, suggested "the top people in the Pentagon" -- including men he chose -- have a common interest with arms dealers in wanting to stay in "endless wars."

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the North Portico of the White House, Sept. 7, 2020, in Washington.
Patrick Semansky/AP

"And it's one of the reasons the military -- I'm not saying the military is in love with me -- the soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren't because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy," he said.

"Some people don't like to come home, some people like to continue to spend money," Trump continued. "One cold-hearted globalist betrayal after another, that's what it was."

Trump later on Monday shared tweets defending the remarks and comparing himself to former President Dwight Eisenhower, who, in a famous 1961 speech marking the end of his time in office, warned Americans about the rising power of the "military industrial complex."

But while Trump campaigns saying that he wants to stop "endless wars," at the same time he touts himself as rebuilding the nation's military by spending tens of billions on new arms and weapons deals.

President Donald Trump, next to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, speaks to reporters upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Sept. 3, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Trump has exaggerated at times that arms deals with Saudi Arabia would create anywhere from 500,000 to "over a million" jobs.

After the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, the White House released a lengthy statement defending the kingdom and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or MBS. Trump said he didn't want to lose arms orders as a result of any sanctions.

Starting with the lines "America First!" and "The world is a very dangerous place!," Trump noted that the "crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one" but that MBS may not be involved. However, the statement was largely focused on the economic benefits of Saudi defense spending, as were Trump's remarks at the time.

"I know they're [Senators] talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they're [Saudi Arabia] spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others for this country. I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States," Trump told reporters on Oct. 11, 2018, though the ultimate deal was closer to $8 billion.

Trump has been a staunch advocate for the main corporate beneficiaries of U.S.-Saudi arms trade in his time in office, some critics note, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Raytheon, where Esper worked.

Trump's comments on top military officials comes as he and the White House continue to vehemently deny allegations published last week in The Atlantic which reported Trump referred to American service members killed in war as "losers" and "suckers" and canceled a visit to a cemetery for American soldiers outside Paris in 2018 because he didn't think it was important to honor them.

ABC News has not independently confirmed the report.

Esper, who was in France during one of the incidents described in the article, on Friday defended Trump, but his statement stopped short of a complete denial of its allegations.

In this Dec. 10, 2019, file photo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper looks on during an event at the Pentagon in Washington, DC.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

"President Trump has the highest respect and admiration for our nation's military members, veterans and families," Esper said in a statement. "That is why he has fought for greater pay and more funding for our armed forces."

Esper hasn't publicly commented on the president's suggestion Monday that Pentagon officials have conflicting motivations.

Last month, during a press conference in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump said that he "considers firing everybody" when asked if he has considered letting Esper go.

"I consider firing everybody. At some point, that's what happens," said Trump, who has had significant turnover in his Cabinet. "No I get along with him. I get along with him fine. He's fine."

Trump also said at the time of Esper, "Some people call him Yesper," in a nod to the defense secretary's loyalty to him.

Back in June, after Esper said he does not support using active duty troops to quell the civil unrest in protests across the country, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany would only say Trump had confidence in Esper "as of right now."

"I would say if he loses confidence in Secretary Esper I'm sure you all will be the first to know. As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper, and should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future," she said.

A retired senior military official told ABC News that the current political climate "is by far the most challenging time for a senior military leader" because of the risk of politicization of the military.

As political debates involving the Pentagon are currently in the spotlight, the official believes they have not made their way inside the Pentagon and "are not having an adverse impact on the military."

The official also expressed a high degree optimism that senior military leaders "will be able to navigate these challenging times."

ABC News' Ben Gittleson, Jordyn Phelps and Matt Seyler contributed to this report.

Related Topics