ATLANTA — President Obama on Monday criticized Republican nominee Donald Trump for disparaging the American military as weak and defended his administration’s efforts to rebuild a Department of Veterans Affairs weighed down by recent scandals.
“I am pretty tired of people trash talking America’s military and troops. Let’s get some facts straight. . . .” Obama said. “We have the most capable fighting force in history, and we are going to keep it that way.”
Obama’s speech to the Disabled American Veterans’ 95th annual convention came amid growing condemnation of Trump for his suggestion that the mother of Army Capt. Humayun Khan, who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, was not allowed to speak during her husband’s remarks at the Democratic National Convention.
“If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say,” Trump said of Ghazala Khan, the mother of the slain soldier.
Obama did not mention Trump by name but pilloried him for praising Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists, saying the late Iraqi leader’s “brutality must be condemned, never praised.”
He condemned Trump’s suggestion that the NATO alliance was irrelevant, saying that the United States would never respond to Russian aggression by turning “our back to our allies in Europe.”
Obama did not mention Khan’s parents or their speech but said he had asked to be introduced at the Democratic convention last week by Sharon Belkofer, whose son was killed in combat. And he called on Americans to support Americans who had lost loved ones to war.
“We have to do everything we can for those families, and honor them, and be humbled by them,” Obama said.
The president left much of the most pointed criticism of Trump’s remarks about the Khan family to Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who called on Trump to apologize to the parents of the slain soldier.
“While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us,” McCain said.
Obama devoted much of his speech to touting his administration’s efforts to fix Veterans Affairs, which has been overwhelmed by scandals and the surging demand generated by 15 years of war and an aging veteran population. To hide their shortcomings, VA officials for years had altered records to hide long waiting times that prevented many veterans from receiving care.
The effort to conceal long waiting times, which Obama called “inexcusable,” resulted in the resignation of Obama’s first VA secretary, Eric. K Shinseki, in 2014.
Veterans groups have praised VA Secretary Robert McDonald, who took over from Shinseki, even as they have raised questions about the president’s commitment to fixing VA. “Like so many presidents before him, he came in saying I am going to fix the VA and he’s leaving without the VA fixed,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in an interview earlier this year. “Most of all, the trust has been broken. The VA brand is devastated.”
Obama described the nation’s commitment to veterans as “a sacred covenant” and conceded that the nation, including his administration, has struggled to uphold it. But he pointed to signs of progress during his presidency, including an 85 percent increase in VA’s budget since 2009, a 47 percent drop in veteran homelessness since 2010 and a 90 percent cut to the disability-claims backlog. He said his administration had made it easier for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder to get treatment by adding doctors, counselors and money for research.
And he talked about the work that must still be done. “When 20 veterans a day are taking their own lives, that is a national tragedy,” Obama said. “We have to do better.”