President Donald Trump and wife Melania Trump visited with troops stationed in Iraq on Wednesday, hours after NBC News reported he was skipping the Christmas tradition
President Donald Trump and wife Melania Trump visited with troops stationed in Iraq on Wednesday — a visit that came hours after NBC News reported Trump was breaking a 15-year tradition of presidents visiting with servicemembers at Christmas.
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, on Wednesday tweeted a photo of the president and his wife surrounded by troops. According to CNN, the Trumps arrived in Iraq on Wednesday following a “secret overnight flight.”
“President Trump and the First Lady traveled to Iraq late on Christmas night to visit with our troops and Senior Military leadership to thank them for their service, their success, and their sacrifice and to wish them a Merry Christmas,” Sanders wrote on Twitter.
President George W. Bush was the last commander-in-chief who didn’t make such a trip, in both 2001 and 2002, in the shadow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and mounting military action in the Middle East, according to NBC. The network first flagged that Trump appeared to be skipping the customary visit with the military in a story published Tuesday.
President Barack Obama visited troops at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii each holiday during his term, NBC reports
Last year, Trump went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. In addition to his overnight trip to Iraq this year, Trump spent part of Christmas Day calling active-duty troops, according to NBC. (White House spokespeople did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment about the president visiting the military.)
“I know it’s a great sacrifice for you to be away from your families, but I want you to know that every American family is eternally grateful to you, and we’re holding you close in our hearts, thoughts and prayers,” Trump told them, according to the Associated Press. “We love what you do and love your work. Amazing people.”
CNN reports that, while talking with troops from the Oval Office, Trump returned to the handful of issues that have dominated his first two years in office: his hostile approach to traditional global alliances, allegations that he and his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election and his pledge to erect a southern border wall — which has recently led to a partial shutdown of the federal government as Congress rejected his request for funding.
“I can’t tell you when the government is going to be open,” Trump said. “I can tell you it’s not going to be open until we have a wall, a fence, whatever they would like to call it.”
On Tuesday, Trump reportedly said he felt he must remain in Washington, D.C., instead of traveling to be with his children for the holiday, as the shutdown stretched on.
“I love the White House, but I wasn’t able to be with my family,” he said, according to CNN. “I thought it would be wrong for me to be with my family, my family is in Florida, Palm Beach, and I just didn’t want to go down and be there when other people are hurting.”
In a video message released by the White House on Christmas morning, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump gave their thanks to the military and law enforcement.
“This Christmas, we salute the brave men and women who serve our nation overseas,” Melania said. “We send our love to the military families whose sacrifice helps keep our nation free.”