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How Trump’s Iraq visit sounded like a campaign rally

American service members stationed in Iraq seemed happy to get a surprise visit from the commander in chief on Wednesday. But President Trump's political rhetoric on the trip was unusually partisan, raising some criticism. William Brangham turns to Yamiche Alcindor for more on what was at stake for the president in making this trip.

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  • William Brangham:

    The president is back home in Washington, after his surprise visit yesterday with American troops stationed in Iraq.

    While the service members clearly seemed happy with the commander in chief's visit, others are raising questions about some of the president's political rhetoric on the trip.

    Our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, is here.

    Hi, Yamiche.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Hi.

  • William Brangham:

    So, last night, when we knew about the president's trip, we talked a little bit about the geopolitical implications of the trip and how Iraq is rebuilding.

    But we wanted to talk about the politics, because, as I said, the president struck a pretty partisan political tone when he was speaking to the troops.

    Can you tell us a little bit about what he said?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    This was essentially a Trump 2020 campaign rally held in front of troops in Iraq.

    The president was attacking Democrats and accusing them of not wanting border security and wanting open borders. The president called out by name Nancy Pelosi, who is, of course, Representative Nancy Pelosi. She is likely going to be the speaker of the House when Democrats take control of the House in 2019.

    And the president also accused immigrants of being criminals. He said that they're going to be bring drugs and human trafficking into the United States.

    I want to play some video that really encapsulates what the president's political message was to the troops.

  • Donald Trump:

    You know, when you think about it, you're fighting for borders in other countries, and they don't want to fight, the Democrats, for the border of our country. It doesn't make a lot of sense.

    I don't know if you folks are aware of what's happening. We want to have strong borders in the United States. The Democrats don't want to let us have strong borders, only for one reason. You know why? Because I want it.

  • William Brangham:

    Is it unusual for a president to take such a political tone when they're standing in front of American service men and women?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's very unusual.

    The president, President Trump, did something very different from his predecessors. One, he went to the troops in Iraq a lot later in his presidency than other presidents have in the past. And this is usually neutral territory. This is not where you bring up political party differences.

    Usually, presidents have talked about thanking the troops and talking about the American mission as a whole. President Obama had gone to both Iraq and Afghanistan within the first two years of his presidency. President George W. Bush also went to Iraq pretty early in his presidency.

    So the president here was — again, his schedule was different from other presidents, but also his tone and his message was different.

  • William Brangham:

    The troops clearly seemed to love having the president there. But it's hard to overlook the fact this is coming in the midst of the shutdown of the government and amidst this very controversial resignation of his defense secretary, Jim Mattis.

    So what is your sense of what the president sees as the upside of this trip for him?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The political upside is, the optics are good for the president and for the first lady.

    This is a president that's dealing with an ongoing government shutdown. This is a president that is dealing with the defense secretary leaving, but also a revolving door at the White House, with all sorts of people, including the chief of staff, leaving. This is also a president who is dealing with the Mueller investigation.

    In 2019, likely, Robert Mueller will be issuing some sort of report that's going to change his presidency, and really impact the way that he can govern in this country. So, with all that going on, the president wants to be seen as someone who's being a commander in chief, who's taking charge, who is supporting troops.

    And the images of him signing "Making America Great" Hats in Iraq are good things for him.

  • William Brangham:

    The president also in his comments to the troops said something that they had to have known wasn't true. And this was him talking about the pay raises they have been given.

    Let's take a listen to what he had to say.

  • Donald Trump:

    You just got one of the biggest pay raises you have ever received, unless you don't want it. Does anybody here…

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Donald Trump:

    Is anybody here willing to give up the big pay raise you just got? Raise your hand, please. I don't see too many hands. OK. Don't give it up. It's great.

    You know what? Nobody deserves it more. You haven't gotten one in more than 10 years, more than 10 years. And we got you a big one. I got you a big one. I got you a big one.

  • William Brangham:

    How true is that?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president simply is not telling the truth there.

    Two things. The president saying that it's been over a decade since service members and troops have gotten a pay raise, that's not true. The service members and troops have been getting pay races every year since at least the last decade. It's usually been around 1 percent.

    The president is also saying that they're going to get a 10 percent raise. Reporting shows that there's going to be a 2.6 percent raise. It's a lot different, about 7 percent difference there. So the president is misleading the troops here.

    And this is a pattern for this president. When he gets in front of big crowds, he likes to tell falsehoods. He likes to exaggerate things. And, here, he's doing just that.

  • William Brangham:

    Yamiche Alcindor, thank you so much.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks.

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