Trump and DeSantis debut dueling military policies

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign and former President Trump this week rolled out dueling plans for the U.S. military, with both GOP candidates' proposals light on details and heavy on gripes over Biden administration efforts. 

While DeSantis’s proposition took aim at Pentagon diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, recruiting woes and policies impacting transgender service members, Trump’s plan focused largely on seeking reimbursements for U.S. aid to Ukraine, lambasting Europe for what he decried as only a “tiny fraction” of what Washington had contributed. 

But as both candidates strive to stand apart from each other’s messaging, choosing to focus on different aspects of national security, experts say there appears to be little difference between the two proposals.   

“There doesn't seem to be very much daylight between the two of them on a couple of different fronts,” said Katherine Kuzminski, an armed forces expert and society at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C., think tank. 

Former President Trump pumps his fist as he departs after speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2023, on Saturday, March 4, 2023, at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“I think there's a real focus on bringing resources back to the U.S. and not extending American leadership abroad. And then, certainly, when it comes to the domestic politics, the pushes for reform within the Department of Defense when it comes to DEI policies and transgender policy,” she said.

“There isn't really a debate between the two of them on these specific issues ... When you look at their policies, they're not actually all that different,” Kuzminski said.

Here are both candidate’s messages on the U.S. military and national security: 

DeSantis’s culture war complaints 

DeSantis’s plan, unveiled at a brief news conference last Tuesday in South Carolina, doubled down on past campaign promises to “rip the woke” out of the U.S. military and overhaul the institution.  

The “Mission First” proposal includes potential six-month performance reviews for all four-star generals and admirals, and possible dismissals should anyone be found to have “promoted policies to the detriment of readiness and warfighting.” 

He also pledged to rescind Biden’s executive order that allows transgender individuals to serve under their preferred sex, rip out DEI initiatives in the services or military academies, end Pentagon efforts to combat extremism in the ranks and reinstate personnel who were dismissed for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine as well as give them backpay.  

In addition, he promised to end programs meant to prepare military installations and troops for future climate change, bashing the Pentagon for shifting, in part, to electric vehicles. 

In an interview with CNN the evening after the press conference, DeSantis claimed his policy targets Pentagon efforts that hinder recruitment and said the military is currently suffering from America’s loss in confidence in the institution. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis rolls out his military policy proposal during an event for his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in West Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

“At this level, everybody has acknowledged these recruiting levels are at a crisis. ... I think it’s because people see the military losing its way, not focusing on the mission and focusing on a lot of these other things,” DeSantis said. 

DeSantis isn’t straying far from his policy proposals already enacted as Florida governor.

While head of the state, he has banned higher education institutions from putting dollars toward diversity and inclusion programs, forbade the use of federal resources to teach students about sexual activity, sexual orientation or gender identity, and prohibited some teachings about race and U.S. history. 

But Michael O'Hanlon, a security fellow at the Brookings Institution, called DeSantis’s stance a “missed opportunity” for the former Navy officer, who served in the Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps in Iraq. 

“Cleary DeSantis is fighting the culture wars and he’s sort of staying true to his M.O.,” O'Hanlon told The Hill.  

“I think it’s probably a missed opportunity for him. … He should be trying to show he is actually capable of developing serious views on the big strategic issues of the day, which are fundamentally not about diversity, equity and inclusion within the armed forces,” he said. “I think he ought to be engaging on China and Russia, how to solve the Ukraine, how to prevent war over Taiwan.” 

And Kuzminski said there’s a misperception that the Florida governor is capitalizing on “wokeness” as a recruiting challenge in the U.S. military,  

“That is the perception of some who may have served a long time ago, but the reality of military service is that it needs to reflect the population from which it's drawn,” she said. “That's a challenge that I think a President Trump 2.0 or President DeSantis is going to run ... into if they were to win the election.” 

On Ukraine, Desantis has offered tentative comments on the conflict, insisting it wasn't a U.S. national security priority and downplaying the Russian invasion. 

“While the U.S. has many vital national interests [such as] securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party, becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” DeSantis said in March. 

He has since walked back his comments on the war being a “territorial dispute.” 

A firefighter walks with of a resident through smoke coming from a house on fire, after cluster rockets hit a residential area, in Konstantinovka, eastern Ukraine, on Saturday, July 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

Trump’s Ukraine-Russia War focus 

Trump, meanwhile, has long made pledges to cut back U.S. involvement in foreign wars, starting with campaign promises ahead of the 2016 presidential election.  

Trump coasted through the 2016 GOP primaries under his so-called “America First” foreign policy, intended to diminish Washington’s role on the world stage and focus more dollars at home than overseas.  

During his presidency, he continued that line of thinking, calling for a reduction in service members serving abroad and criticizing the U.S. foreign intervention as being too expensive and ineffective. 

Trump seems to be doubling down on that track with his plan for “Rebuilding America’s Depleted Military,” also released last week. 

In a prerecorded video put out by his campaign, the former president focuses largely on foreign policy, repeating criticisms over Biden’s handling Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

If reelected, he claimed, he would demand Europe pay the U.S. to rebuild its weapons stockpiles — which have pulled from heavily since February 2022 to help bolster Kyiv in its fight.  

“Less than three years ago, I’d fully rebuilt the United States military and steered America into such a strong global position,” Trump boasted. 

“Twenty-nine months later, the arsenals are empty, the stockpiles are bare, the Treasury is drained, the ranks are being hollowed out, our country has been totally humiliated, and we have a corrupt, compromised president, crooked Joe Biden, who is dragging us into World War III,” he said. 

Trump also claimed Washington’s European allies were only giving a “tiny fraction” of the assistance to Ukraine compared to the United States, and suggested Biden was “too weak and too disrespected to even ask” for reimbursement.  

Trump also said in a recent interview that he could end the war in 24 hours, a claim many found dubious. 

O’Hanlon, who called Trump’s assertions on lagging European assistance to Ukraine “incorrect,” said he appears to be banking on his past arguments on making America first. 

Kuzminski agreed that Trump’s campaign looks to be “hitting harder on making Ukraine repay us,” and “doubling down" on those statements.

While Trump hasn’t been as vocal on culture war issues in the military this time around, he has a well-documented history when it comes to his stance on transgender service members in the military.

In July 2017, he announced on Twitter, apparently out of the blue, that transgender individuals would no longer be allowed “to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” 

That ban was eventually rescinded by Biden via executive order shortly after he entered the White House in January 2021.