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Trump at MacDill: Promises to defeat Islamic State and bring new planes to base

President Donald Trump talks with members of the military during a luncheon at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Monday. Trump made small-talk with his tablemates about Sunday’s Super Bowl and what it’s like to be a career military person.
President Donald Trump talks with members of the military during a luncheon at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Monday. Trump made small-talk with his tablemates about Sunday’s Super Bowl and what it’s like to be a career military person.
Published Feb. 7, 2017

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE

There were hoots and hollers and a lot of cheering.

A civilian waved his red "MAGA" baseball cap. U.S. and foreign military leaders listened intently for signals about the way ahead.

They were among about 300 people, most in uniform, who filed Monday into the Joint Intelligence Operations Center at U.S. Central Command to hear President Donald Trump make his first speech at a military base.

CentCom oversees U.S. military operations in a 20-nation swath running east from Egypt to Kazakhstan, and including Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Gulf States and nuclear-armed Pakistan. U.S. Special Operations Command, also headquartered at MacDill, coordinates the global war on terror and provides fully equipped and trained commandos.

"The men and women serving at CentCom and SOCom have poured out their hearts and souls for this country," Trump said, reiterating his pledges to defeat the Islamic State, defend his restriction on immigration and refugees and support NATO — with the caveat that member nations pony up money for their own defense.

"So today we deliver a message in one very unified voice to these forces of death and destruction — America and its allies will defeat you," the president said to cheers. "We will defeat radical Islamic terrorism. And we will not allow to it take root in our country. Not going to allow it."

The president also used Monday's speech to continue his war of words with the media, saying it's covering up news about terror attacks.

"It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported," he said. "And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer clarified Trump's remarks that terror attacks were "under-reported" rather than unreported and said he would provide a list of the attacks, according to the Washington Post. The White House later released a list of 78 attacks, according to CNN, that included some that the media covered in-depth such as the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando, the San Bernardino shootings in 2015, the killing of 86 people in Nice, France, in 2016 and the suicide bombings in Brussels that same year.

Trump's speech was notable for local reasons, too.

He promised that MacDill, home to two Air Force wings sharing 16 Eisenhower-era KC-135 aerial refueling jets, would be getting new aircraft.

MacDill "is quite a place," Trump said, and "we will be loading it up with beautiful new planes and new equipment. You've been lacking equipment and we will load it up."

What he meant was unclear.

The base missed the cut to host the next round of new KC-46 jets, set to replace the KC-135s over time. An Army Reserve helicopter wing is set to move to MacDill from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and the base is scheduled to receive another eight of the old KC-135s. But these moves have been in the works for some time and no new allocations are in the pipeline.

Officials from the 6th Air Mobility Wing, the base host unit which flies the refueling tankers, referred questions to CentCom, which referred questions to the Air Force. The Air Force deferred to the White House, which did not immediately respond to questions about Trump's pledge.

As Trump was landing at MacDill in Air Force One at 11:20 a.m., about 80 protesters stood on the sidewalk along Dale Mabry Highway outside the base holding signs and shouting.

Their hope: to put protest banners in Trump's view as his plane descended.

"We want to be here visible to Donald Trump to intimate what it's like to come to a land where you're not welcome, and he's most certainly not welcome in Tampa," said demonstration organizer Dezeray Lyn, 38, of Tampa. Lyn is a cofounder of Love Has No Borders, a "radical, grass roots refugee solidarity organization" that works with three dozen local refugee families.

By 1 p.m., the scheduled end of the rally, about a dozen protesters remained. Asked how much longer they would stay, Mike Anderson, a 26-year-old community outreach director for Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, replied, "As long as it takes."

MacDill is unique among U.S. military bases because it hosts military representatives from about 50 nations who are helping CentCom in the fights against both the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan. Nearly half of those nations' representatives were at Trump's appearance.

Trump said he was "proud, very proud" to stand with them.

He also said that while he backs NATO, its members need to "pay their fair share.

"We strongly support NATO," Trump said. "We only ask that all of the NATO members make their full and proper financial contributions to the NATO alliance, which many of them have not been doing. Many of them have not been even close."

French Brig. Gen. Thierry Ducret, his nation's senior representative to CentCom, told the Tampa Bay Times that Trump delivered a "speech you could expect from the new commander-in-chief," addressing "his troops about the trust, confidence and support he has for them" and reminding NATO partners of their duty.

Before his speech, Trump attended a briefing by two Army four-star generals — Joseph Votel, the head of CentCom, and Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas, head of SOCom.

Then he sat down with about three dozen enlisted troops for a lunch of Cuban sandwiches at a dining room on the fourth floor of CentCom headquarters.

Trump made small talk with those at his table.

In particular, he lauded New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, saying he "cemented his place" in football history with his fifth Super Bowl win Sunday.

Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Paul Guzzo contributed to this report. Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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