All presidents have their own way of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday. Barack Obama and his family would celebrate at the White House after spending the day before passing out food and good wishes to the needy in the Washington area. George W. Bush and his family usually spent it at their Texas ranch, although he famously made a surprise trip to Iraq in 2003 to serve a turkey dinner to troops in the war zone. Bill Clinton and family often served Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless before going to Camp David for the long weekend. The Reagans always spent the holiday at their Santa Barbara home.
All of them would issue a Thanksgiving proclamation and they very often called troops around the world to thank them for their service. It's what presidents do. Donald Trump did that too, although I think most of the country wishes that he'd just dropped that tradition as he has so many others. It was an epic disaster of a call.
First, let's set the stage. Unlike the previous presidents who either spent the holiday at a personal home or a White House residence, Trump goes to his gilt-laden commercial property in Florida, where people pay him for the privilege of sharing the meal with him. Unlike most "winter White House" situations, there's apparently no permanent set for the president to perform his duties at Mar-a-Lago, so the staff put a little desk in the middle of a lobby, making Trump look as if he were sitting at the check-in table for a life insurance seminar.
Trump gave a standard scripted speech about the troops and then proceeded to speak with various members of the armed services around the world on speakerphone. He asked generals for public combat assessments (not cool) and bizarrely quizzed some befuddled Coast Guard lieutenant stationed in Bahrain about trade:
What’s going on in the region? How are they feeling about things? How are they feeling about trade? Because, you know, trade for me is a very big subject all over. We’ve been taken advantage of for many, many years by bad trade deals. We don’t have any good trade deals. How are you finding things in the region, Nick?
The lieutenant replied that from his perspective on a boat out in the water there was a lot of trade going on and he didn't see any issues. Trump told him to "keep it that way," but reiterated that we have had bad trade deals but now we're going to have good ones because other countries won't be taking advantage of us. The military personnel listening must have wondered just what kind of mission he thought they were on.
When Trump spoke with a Navy captain stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the president implied that he disapproved of an upgrade from steam-powered to electromagnetic catapults,
Mostly, however, he talked about the border. The U.S. border with Mexico, of course. None of the troops he was speaking to were stationed there. They were all stationed in the Middle East or on ships at sea. Nonetheless, he used the occasion to rant and rave about the "caravan" and immigrants invading our shores -- even somehow connecting that to the war in Afghanistan, saying, "You’re doing it over there, we’re doing it over here."
Nursing a continuing grudge with Chief Justice John Roberts over a federal judge who blocked his latest draconian immigration executive order, Trump ragged on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals during the call. He told the troops, "It’s a terrible thing when judges take over your protective services; when they tell you how to protect your border, it’s a disgrace."
What a monumentally inappropriate comment to make to military personnel who are in a war zone overseas. It's mind-boggling. Of course, this is the president who addressed the Boy Scout Jamboree by telling licentious stories about rich men on their yachts, telling the assembled campers, "You’re Boy Scouts, but you know life, you know life." We should count ourselves lucky he didn't ask the troops if they were getting any over there -- or lead them in a chant of "Lock her up!"
Trump simply can't think of anything else to talk about beyond his short list of personal obsessions. When the assembled reporters asked him questions after the call, he got right back on that feedback loop, going on about the alleged border crisis, the courts and trade. He only digressed to double down on his apologia for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, even saying that he hates what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi but he knows the prince hates it even more. (Just as a refresher: The CIA has concluded that Khashoggi was murdered on Prince Mohammed's orders.) A reporter asked him who should be held accountable and he said, "Maybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place."
On Thanksgiving Day 2018, the president of the United States ranted to troops overseas about how terrible the American judicial system is, and equated their various professional missions with his "war" at the U.S. border. He fueled a feud with the chief Justice of the Supreme Court and dismissed the findings of the U.S. intelligence community (again) in favor of a murderous tyrant, blaming "the world" for being vicious. He petulantly listed one grievance after another, every government institution the subject of his wrath.
Never let it be said that it was all dark and depressing. When asked what he was thankful for, Trump brightened immediately and didn't miss a beat:
For having a great family and for having made a tremendous difference in this country. I’ve made a tremendous difference in the country. This country is so much stronger now than it was when I took office, that you wouldn’t believe it.
He's right about that. Nobody believes it.