Dana Milbank: While Trump feasts, troops await Pancho Villa
President Trump was planning to celebrate Thanksgiving once again at his members-only Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida, feasting on (if previous menus repeat) a 24-dish extravaganza of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, marshmallow sweet potatoes, red snapper, leg of lamb, grilled diver scallops, stone crab, ahi tuna martinis, Maine lobster bisque, short ribs, beef tenderloin and seven desserts.
It will likely all be topped off by what the president calls “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” -available exclusively to members ($200,000 initiation fee) and guests.
Things will be rather less sumptuous along the southern border, to which Trump, just before the midterm elections, ordered some 5,600 troops, with another 1,400 on the way, to contain the “national emergency” posed by the approaching caravan of Central American families seeking asylum.
Since the election, Trump has forgotten about the mortal peril posed by the caravan “invasion” - he has mentioned the “caravan” only once, and only when asked - but the troops he ordered to act in this political advertisement can’t forget. They will remain on the border through Thanksgiving, the New York Times reported, eating MRE rations, living in tents without electricity, receiving neither combat pay nor hostile-fire pay.
Their only task is to spend a few days stringing barbed wire. After this, their mission, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, “is somewhat to be determined.”
Operation TBD. At least that’s more honest than “Operation Faithful Patriot,” the name originally assigned to Trump’s Pentagon-financed campaign ad.
This is the time when another president would pay a Thanksgiving visit to the troops he has mobilized. President George W. Bush famously visited Iraq on Thanksgiving in 2003.
Trump, similarly, could visit his underemployed troops and give them a sense of mission - even a phony one. Before Election Day, he imagined the caravan to be packed with terrorists, drug dealers and killers. Surely he could now blame the caravan for, say, the California wildfires, Roger Stone’s text messages, the failure to vet the acting attorney general, the need to furnish identification when buying breakfast cereal, or all those people who were able to repeatedly vote by changing hats in their cars. He could then pass out 7,000 stone crabs and beautiful pieces of chocolate cake and be on his way. (When he visited a local Coast Guard post last Thanksgiving, they got wrapped sandwiches and potato chips.)
Mattis tried another way to give meaning to the troops’ aimless mission on the border. “I would put this in a little historic context,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “I think many of you are aware that President Wilson 100 years ago, a little over 100 years ago, deployed the U.S. Army to the southwest border. ... The threat then was Pancho Villa’s troops, a revolutionary raiding across the border into the United States.”
At first glance, it would appear that a raid by Pancho Villa’s guerrillas that killed 17 Americans in New Mexico 102 years ago has very little to do with the unarmed and impoverished Central Americans currently seeking refuge in the United States.
But maybe Mattis has revealed something about Trump’s national-security decisions. The policies may be inappropriate for the current day, but they would have been eminently sensible a century ago, or earlier.
Some might say it is pointlessly antagonistic to attack the president of France over his approval rating and the French unemployment rate and to misrepresent his statements. But there is historical context for Trump’s belligerence! The French fought us during the French and Indian War in the 1750s. And French privateers seized our merchant ships in the 1790s.
Some might think Trump’s “travel ban” is an attempt to punish Muslim countries on the basis of religion. But there is historical context! Between 1801 and 1815, we fought in the Barbary Wars against what is now Libya - one of the countries targeted by the travel ban.
Some might take issue with Trump’s attempt to portray Mexicans as murderers. But there is historical context! Remember the Alamo? The Mexican-American War? The Cortinista Bandits of 1859? The Las Cuevas War of 1875? Anyone?
Some might think Trump is naive to alienate Britain and Germany while warmly embracing Russia. But there is historical context!
Russia was on our side during the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 (and they weren’t so bad in 1856 during the Second Opium War). And Britain was our enemy in the War of 1812 - and Hessian soldiers fought against us during the American Revolution!
There is even historical context for Trump spending Thanksgiving in Mar-a-Lago’s luxury rather than roughing it with troops along the border. That area was highly unstable in 1521, when Europeans defeated the Aztecs and their emperor, Montezuma II.
We can’t risk sending the president there. You never know when Montezuma might exact his revenge.
Dana Milbank is a syndicated columnist. You can follow him on Twitter, @Milbank.