President, at Fort Drum, signs $700B spending bill with jets, copters, tanks — and space force

President Donald Trump holds up the signed H.R. 5515, the John McCain National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2019, on Monday at Wheeler-Sack Army Air Field at Fort Drum. (Photo — Daytona Niles, Watertown Daily Times)

WATERTOWN — President Donald Trump arrived this afternoon at Fort Drum to sign H.R. 5515, the John McCain National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2019, which he did to rousing cheers from the assembled soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division.

“At ease,” he told the soldiers assembled in a hanger near the Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield at Fort Drum. “You got seats, sit down.”

With his audience sitting comfortably, Trump — along with Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro — hit the highlights of the bill’s appropriations, punctuated by cheers from the assembled soldiers.

“This an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill,” Stefanik told the Times. “This is the earliest we’ve ever had the NDAA signed since the 1970s.”

The bill covers the $717 billion that the U.S. will spend on defense in fiscal year 2019, as well as a number of policies, acquisitions and goals for the military.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, speaks in front of President Donald Trump during an event in August 2018 at Fort Drum. (Photo — Daytona Niles, Watertown Daily Times)

“No better place to celebrate its passage than at Fort Drum, no better place,” Trump said. “‘Fort Drum soldiers aren’t just tough; we are mountain tough.’ I said to your general, what’s the difference? He said, ‘Trust me, there’s a difference.'”

The commander of the 10th Mountain Division, Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, said he appreciated the recognition from the president.

“It’s nice that all our national leaders would come up here,” said Piatt, who just returned last week from a deployment in Iraq. “That was special to me.”

One of the major appropriations in the bill was a 2.6 percent pay raise for troops, the highest raise in nine years.

“We know you don’t want it, because you’re very patriotic; you say, ‘Save the money,'” Trump said. “Does anyone not want it, raise your hand.”

Few of the soldiers did.

“What’s going on here?” Trump joked. “Are these real patriots? I don’t know.”

More troops, ‘invisible’ plane

Besides increasing the pay of the troops, the bill also authorizes recruiting 15,600 new service members across all the military branches. Other appropriations include spending on new military hardware, including 77 F-35 fighter jets that Trump has repeatedly praised.

“I talked to a couple of pilots, great pilots, and I said, ‘How are they?’ and they said, ‘They are hard to beat because you can’t see them,'” Trump said during his speech. “It is hard to beat the enemy when you can’t see them. Greatest in the world.”

Trump has repeatedly claimed the F-35 fighter jet is invisible. While the jets are designed to be stealthy and hard to spot on radar, they are visible to the naked eye.

There is more mundane hardware in the bill, too, including 135 M1 Abrams tanks and 60 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, as well as new Black Hawk and Apache helicopters for the Army National Guard. It is this regular upgrading of equipment that helps the 10th Mountain Division do its job, according to Piatt,

“The pay raise always helps, soldiers like to get paid for their work, but it’s more than that,” said Piatt. “[The president] mentioned the vehicle upgrade, our tanks, our Bradleys, our helicopter modernization, our weapons systems.”

Especially for a light infantry division like the 10th Mountain, helicopter upgrades are important, according to Piatt.

“We depend on it,” he said. “If our helicopters can’t fly or can’t get into the [landing zone], we’re out there alone.”

As part of Trump’s visit, the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division carried out an air assault exercise to show exactly what they could do with their helicopters. While the commander in chief watched with Piatt, troops landed in helicopters and ran out, taking up firing positions around a landing zone while Chinooks brought in two cannons, lowering them to the tarmac. The soldiers had the two artillery pieces firing off volleys within minutes, the smoke from the guns drifting up against the clouds on the horizon.

“I witnessed your remarkable capabilities firsthand,” Trump told the soldiers after the demonstration. “Nobody stands a chance against you folks.”

Sgt. Raymond Collazo participated in the demonstration, which he said involved about four days of training. He listened to the president’s speech with camouflage combat paint still smeared across his face.

“It was a good speech, good for the troops to get more money,” Collazo said. “Good to have a president that’s taking care of the military.”

Trump and Pence both mentioned the creation of a new branch of the military authorized by the bill, the United States Space Command, designed to counter emerging threats to American satellites and other military assets in space.

“It’s not enough to have an American presence in space; we must have American dominance in space,” Trump said.

“Military first” policy

With $16 billion more than last year, Trump repeatedly returned to a theme of putting the military first — with the implication it had been neglected too long.

“We are standing up for America. It’s called America first, if that’s OK with you,” Trump said. “We’re standing up for the American flag.”

Collazo said he had felt the impact of smaller budgets and was glad of the restoration.

“It has been abandoned with budget cuts,” he said. This new funding, he said, would make things easier.

Trump also took a moment to talk about new jobs created and unemployment numbers dropping under his leadership, and congratulated himself for his restraint in not attacking the press pool.

“I’m so proud of myself; I didn’t call them the fake news,” he said. “We know the truth, but we don’t say it here.”

Asked about his comments, Stefanik said she supported local news.

“I think he rightfully kept the focus on the military and the families,” she said.

There was one key element that Trump did not mention — the full name of the bill. Not once during his remarks he mention Sen. John McCain, the ailing chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee whose name was attached to the bill.

McCain and Trump have clashed repeatedly since Trump stepped into the political field. Trump infamously disputed that McCain, a former Navy pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and held a prisoner of war, was a hero.

“I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said in 2015.

McCain has strongly criticized the president and has voted against him on some prominent bills.

“John McCain is a hero,” Stefanik told the Times when asked about the omission. “We worked very closely with his office” on the bill.

Asked if she thought the omission by the president was significant, she said “No, I don’t.”

Paitt pointed to the fact that many divisions of the Army and other armed services were left out of the president’s remarks, too.

“I wouldn’t read anything into it,” he said. “I think [Trump] has great respect for everyone who ever served.”

State Senators Patricia Ritchie, R-Heuvelton and Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, as well as Jefferson County Legislature Chairman Scott Gray and other members of the Legislature were at a noon reception on Fort Drum for various North Country elected officials at the airbase ahead of the president’s arrival.

On Sunday, Democratic congressional candidate Tedra Cobb, who is running against Stefanik, sent out a press release welcoming the president and inviting him to a health care roundtable at 4:30 p.m. at the Masonic Temple. Cobb would meet with residents who are struggling with health care coverage or work in health care, according to the release.

After visiting Fort Drum, Trump went to Utica to hold a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford. The $1,000-a-plate minimum event was to begin at 4:30 p.m. at the Hotel Utica, according to Tenney’s Democratic opponent, Anthony Brindisi, is holding a $10-a-ticket fundraiser at the same time.

Pence’s schedule did not have him attending the Tenney fundraiser.