WASHINGTON — Before he was elected president, Donald Trump told biographer Michael D'Antonio that his attendance at a military boarding school gave him "more training militarily than a lot of guys that go into the military."
As president, he has stacked his top echelon with guys who went into the military — and they are among those who advised the new president before he ordered 59 cruise missiles be launched into a Syrian air base.
When Trump compared his years at New York Military Academy to military service, some veterans were quick to point out that Trump received multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War — as did former Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Dick Cheney. And yet Trump has an ardor for surrounding himself with former military men and appointing a considerable number of veterans to his Cabinet. One-third — or eight out of 24 — of Trump's Cabinet-level picks have served in the military.
The list includes departments — Defense, Homeland Security, National Intelligence and CIA — where defense expertise would be expected. But Trump also has found veterans to head other agencies.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was a Navy SEAL. Energy Secretary Rick Perry flew C-130 cargo planes in the Air Force. Attorney General Jeff Sessions served in the Army Reserves. Trump's would-be Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue — who along with Trump's picks as labor secretary and U.S. trade representative has not been confirmed — was an Air Force captain.
"It's huge," said Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman Joe Davis, who figures that 7 percent of the U.S. population — a fraction of Trump's Cabinet — has worn the uniform. He added that four top-level advisers have close family members with strong ties to the service. The brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was a Navy SEAL. Small Business Association head Linda McMahon grew up on a military base. So did Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin — who happens to be the first VA secretary not to have served in the military.
"My father was an Army psychiatrist, both grandfathers were Army veterans, and my paternal grandfather served as chief pharmacist at the VA hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. As a young doctor, I trained in VA hospitals," Shulkin said in a statement.
"One thing we have found is that you don't have to be a veteran to love veterans," said Davis, "and that's Dr. Shulkin."
Vice President Mike Pence is not a veteran, but he is a Blue Star father; his son Michael is a Marine.
The ratio of veterans in the Trump administration represents a big bump from President Barack Obama's first Cabinet, which included only two veterans — Defense Secretary Robert Gates and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Obama's first Cabinet members were three times more likely to have graduated from law school than boot camp.
Veteran Legal Institute CEO Dwight Stirling believes demographics play a role. Obama is 55; Trump is 70. "I think the reason there were so few veterans in the Obama administration was largely generational. Between the end of the Vietnam War and the Gulf War in the '90s, very few white-collar professionals decided to serve in the military."
The first cabinet of President George W. Bush claimed six veterans, seven after Bush named Tom Ridge as secretary of homeland security.
Stirling expects Trump to hire veterans who "have a viewpoint consistent with his ideology."
There also could be a lifestyle match. Trump picked people who were highly successful in their fields — in the military or on Wall Street. Of Trump's 24 advisers, nine, including Pence, have law degrees. Three of the eight Cabinet-level veterans also have law degrees. There are three doctors, including an acclaimed neurosurgeon and a veterinarian, nominated for Trump's Cabinet.
"He's surrounding himself with military people so he can be their commander in chief," scoffed Bob Mulholland, California Democratic Party spokesman and a Vietnam vet.
"The president ran on a platform of supporting the military and supporting our veterans. It is very encouraging to see that he surrounded himself with career military veterans and one-term military veterans, and military family members," countered Davis.
Zinke has said he believes his service in the Navy SEALs uniquely informs, for example, his take on coal.
"It is, from a SEAL perspective, it is better to make sure we're not held hostage on our energy needs in this country. And like you, I don't want my kids — sons and daughters — to have to fight a war for energy resources we have here," Zinke said at a recent White House briefing.
"And look, the world is safer when America is stronger, and America stronger is not being dependent on foreign services for energy," he said. "We can do it here right, and we will."