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S.C. veterans feel disrespected by Trump. Many will support him anyway.

In World
February 22, 2024

By Nathan Layne and Gram Slattery

GREENVILLE, South Carolina (Reuters) – Bill Lyons disapproves of Republican frontrunner Donald Trump‘s mockery of rival Nikki Haley‘s military husband for not joining her on the U.S. campaign trail. But it won’t shake Lyons’ support for the former president.

“He should not be disparaging our military. I don’t agree with that at all,” said Lyons, 81, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. “But other than that, he did a good job for this country when he was in there for four years.”

Lyons is commander of the American Legion Post in Sumter, South Carolina, where Haley campaigned this week to court the state’s sizable military vote ahead of its Republican primary on Saturday.

She touted her husband Michael Haley’s deployment to Africa while highlighting Trump’s years of disparaging comments about veterans. She said the U.S. should project power overseas, including by aiding Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Haley has made Trump’s comments a focal point of her campaign in South Carolina, a state where she served as governor from 2011 to 2017. The southern state has eight major military installations and the eighth-largest share of active military personnel in the country.

She is hoping for a solid showing in her home state to gain momentum going into the Super Tuesday primaries on March 5.

Interviews with nearly two dozen veterans and military spouses, including many who have seen combat or been wounded in conflict, show her message is falling short with some members of this important voting bloc.

Several voters called Haley, who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump, a “globalist” and raised concerns she would lead the U.S. into a war. Many said migrants at the U.S. southern border were their top national security concern and should take priority over any efforts overseas.

Nearly all those interviewed disapproved of Trump’s comments in recent days questioning why Michael Haley, a South Carolina Army National Guard officer, is serving a deployment rather than campaigning alongside his wife.

Most did not consider it to be disqualifying, however, noting Trump had a record of supporting the troops despite his history of insulting military veterans.

Trump once said the late John McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate, was not a war hero even though he spent years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam after being shot down while a U.S. Navy pilot.

Trump also referred to fallen World War One veterans as “suckers” and “losers,” according to his former White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general.

“That stuff isn’t relevant to me,” said Austin McCall, a 29-year-old Marine who recalled fondly when Trump served him Thanksgiving dinner on a surprise visit to Afghanistan in 2019. “Trump was president for four years and it was great.”

A Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll released this week underscored Trump’s commanding grip on voters with military ties. The survey put his overall advantage in South Carolina at 63%-35% over Haley and even higher among voters in military families at 65%-33%.


Trump made the comments about Michael Haley at a rally in Conway, South Carolina, on Feb. 11. “What happened to her husband?” Trump told the crowd. “Where is he? He’s gone.”

In recent weeks, Trump also has said Michael Haley should come back home to help save his wife’s “dying” campaign.

Melania Trump, Donald Trump’s wife, has been almost entirely absent from the campaign trail. The former president has repeatedly said she is a private person who prefers to stay out of the limelight.

Tommy Easler, 80, was one of the South Carolina veterans who said Trump’s remarks about Haley’s husband gave him pause.

“Trump had my attention until he accused her husband of not being available when he was on deployment,” Easler said, adding he was undecided between Haley and Trump. “That’s a big demerit.”

During a speech in Greenville on Tuesday, the normally stoic Haley choked up when discussing her husband.

“Michael is fighting for the country he loves. So are all his brothers- and sisters-in-arms, wherever they’re stationed in our dangerous world,” Haley told supporters. “Now I will continue to make my stand because America is worth living for.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas added: “Someone who continually attacks the service and sacrifice of our troops and their families has no business being commander in chief. This shouldn’t be so hard for Donald Trump.”

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Kim Alsip, a retired Army nurse, said Trump’s behavior was one reason she planned to vote for Haley in the primary, even though she thinks Trump will win. Alsip said she would support Trump in the Nov. 5 general election if he becomes the Republican nominee as expected.

“If he just shut his mouth, he’d be OK,” she said. “His politics I like, but Nikki Haley has a personality that I would like to see in the White House again.”

Alsip, 60, said she backed Haley’s stance on providing financial aid to Ukraine as a check on Russia’s ongoing assault on the country.

Other voters who spoke to Reuters expressed skepticism of Haley’s foreign policy views, saying that they worried support for Ukraine might escalate into a broader regional conflict or that it would simply distract from more pressing issues at home.

Such sentiment plays into the hands of Trump, who embraced an isolationist “America First” approach to foreign policy while in office from 2017-2021 and boasts on the campaign trail that he avoided war during his four-year term.

“I’m not sure that we should be putting so much money into these foreign countries other than Israel,” Lyons, the Coast Guard veteran, said. “We should be putting some of that money to close this border in Texas and California and Arizona where all these immigrants are coming in.”

(Reporting by Nathan Layne and Gram Slattery; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Howard Goller)

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