President Donald Trump delivered an overtly political speech Monday to a national gathering of thousands of Boy Scouts in West Virginia, prompting the chief of the Boy Scouts of America to apologize to the Scouts for the president's "political rhetoric."
Trump's speech also invited criticism from current and former troop leaders.
Trump kicked off his speech to throngs of 12- to 18-year-olds at the National Scout Jamboree by asking rhetorically, "Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I'm in front of the Boy Scouts, right?" He then spent most of the speech talking about politics.
Over the course of his 35-minute address, Trump joked about firing Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, if Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare fail; criticized the "fake media" several times; celebrated the margin of his electoral victory over Hillary Clinton; and boasted about the economy and stock market.
On Thursday, Michael Surbaugh, the Chief Scout Executive for the Boy Scouts of America, apologized to the Scouting community for "the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree."
In a blog post addressed to the Scouting Family, Surbaugh wrote that the events of the jamboree were "overshadowed by the remarks offered by the President of the United States."
"I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent," Surbaugh wrote, adding that the invitation to the president to visit the National Jamboree was a long-standing tradition, and was "in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies."
"For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters," Surbaugh wrote. "We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program."
During his speech, the president also bragged about the size of the crowd, inaccurately claiming that a "record-setting" 45,000 people were in attendance, but said that the news media would report "it's about 200."
“What do you think the chances are that this incredible, massive crowd, record-setting, is going to be shown on television tonight? One percent or zero,” he told the gathering. "The fake media will say President Trump spoke before a small crowd of Boy Scouts today. That's some — that is some crowd. Fake media, fake news."
The Boy Scouts of America told BuzzFeed News in a statement it could not confirm Trump's claim.
"We cannot estimate the size at tonight's event," the organization said, "but we can tell you the Boy Scouts of America welcomed 40,000 Scouts, Venturers, volunteers and other participants to the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia for the National Scout Jamboree, Scouting's largest event in celebration of adventure, service and conservation."
In his speech, Trump brought up Washington, DC, which he called "the swamp," saying his disparaging nickname for the nation's capital should be changed to "the cesspool or perhaps the word sewer, but it's not good."
The president noted members of his cabinet who were former Boy Scouts, including Price, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Vice President Mike Pence.
"Many of my top advisers in the White House were scouts. Ten members of my cabinet were scouts," Trump said. "Can you believe that?"
He later turned to the Republican effort to repeal former president Barack Obama's health care law, the Affordable Care Act, saying Price had "better" get the votes to "kill this horrible thing known as Obamacare that's really hurting us."
"By the way, you're going to get the votes?" Trump said to Price. "He better get 'em. He better get 'em. Oh, he better."
"Otherwise," Trump continued, "I'll say, Tom, you're fired. I'll get somebody."
"He better get Sen. [Shelley Moore] Capito to vote for it," Trump said referring to the junior senator from West Virginia who has been on the fence about supporting the Republican health care bill. "He has to get the other senators to vote for it."
Trump then attacked Obama for not attending the gathering in years past. “By the way, just a question, did President Obama ever come to a jamboree?" he said. (Obama instead recorded a video message for the gathering.)
While extolling the virtues of hard work, Trump told a lengthy story about William Levitt, a real estate developer credited with inventing the suburb but who is also seen as a controversial figure for refusing to sell homes to black people. It's not the first time Trump has talked about Levitt — he referenced him while he was on the campaign trail and in his 2004 book Trump: How to Get Rich.
"I saw him at a cocktail party and it was very sad because the hottest people in New York were at this party,” Trump told the gathering. “And I see sitting in the corner, was a little old man who was all by himself. Nobody was talking to him. I immediately recognized that the man was the once-great William Levitt of Levittown."
The president's anecdote focused on how Levitt lost "momentum" after he retired and then tried to get back into the real estate business by buying his company, but "in the end he failed and he failed badly."
Trump compared it to his run for the presidency, once again disparaging the "dishonest" media for saying he couldn't win the election.
"Do you remember that famous night on television, November 8, where they said, these dishonest people, where they said there is no path to victory for Donald Trump?" the president asked.
"But do you remember that incredible night with the maps and the Republicans are red and the Democrats are blue and that map was so red it was unbelievable and they didn't know what to say," Trump continued. "And you know, we have a tremendous disadvantage in the Electoral College. Popular vote is much easier. We have — because New York, California, Illinois, you have to practically run the East Coast and we did. We won Florida, we won South Carolina, North Carolina, Pennsylvania."
Trump then moved on to a recent jobs report and the stock market.
"We're going to be bringing back very soon trillions of dollars from companies that can't get their money back into this country and that money is going to be used to help rebuild America," Trump said.
He also brought up the so-called war on Christmas, telling the scouts, "In the Scout Oath, you pledge on your honor to do your best and to do your duty to God and your country. And by the way, under the Trump administration, you’ll be saying 'Merry Christmas' again when you go shopping. Believe me. Merry Christmas. "
Trump said the Boy Scouts will "never ever let us down" and then pivoted to the US military, praising the "billions and billions and billions" his administration was pouring into defense.
"Billions of dollars," Trump said. "New planes. New ships. Great equipment for our people."
Trump concluded the speech by saying he was proud of Boy Scouts and that he had known many in his life who were "winners."
"Remember your duty, honor your history, take care of the people God put into your life, and love and cherish your great country," Trump said. "You are very special people."
"If you do what we say, I promise that you will live scouting's adventure every single day of your life and you will win, win, win, and you will help people in doing so," Trump concluded.
In response to questions about the speech, the Boy Scouts of America said it is a "non-partisan" organization and that it has invited every sitting president to speak.
“The Boy Scouts of America is wholly non-partisan and does not promote any one position, product, service, political candidate or philosophy," it said in a statement. "The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition and is in no way an endorsement of any political party or specific policies."
“The sitting U.S. President serves as the BSA’s honorary president. It is our long-standing custom to invite the U.S. President to the National Jamboree," it said.
But current and former Boy Scout troop leaders criticized Trump's politicization of the event.
Ray Hagen, a fundraising coordinator for a troop in Minnesota, told BuzzFeed News he was "disappointed" with Trump's speech.
"I was just kind of disappointed overall that the president decided to go that direction to an organization that is supposed to be nonpolitical," he said.
Hagen has two sons involved in scouting and listed a series of service projects they have done this summer, including planting trees, beautifying parks, and planting gardens. He said those are the kinds of things scouting is about, and criticized Trump for "goading the boys into booing his political opponents" at the jamboree.
Brett Nicholson, a parent to three Boy Scouts and an assistant scoutmaster in a west Houston, Texas, troop, said he was "disgusted" by Trump’s speech.
"I just think it’s really sort of shameful that our current president chose to use it as an opportunity to have another rally for his own ego," he said.
Nicholson has been involved in scouting for years — two of his sons already achieved the top rank of Eagle Scout, and his third son is almost there — and his troop includes a diverse group of more than 100 boys. He praised scouting as an institution, and added that he could not recall any event where he had heard a speech as politicized as Trump's.
"It sickens me," Nicholson said. "It looked like he’s turning them into the Hitler Youth."
Jon Smith, a former troop leader in New Haven, Connecticut, said Trump’s comments were the most political he has heard at a scouting event. In the aftermath, he felt “really let down by the BSA."
“This was just appalling,” he said, adding that the president's mentions of “fake media” were particularly troubling.
Nicholas Monck, an Eagle Scout, former troop leader and former camp counselor, said Trump’s speech "demonstrated a lack of understanding of what it means to be a Boy Scout."
"I can only say that I’m completely disgusted by the partisan nature of the speech and how inappropriate was," he said.
Monck singled out Trump’s media bashing, his "dig at President Obama," and the "references to Obamacare" as inappropriate topics at the jamboree. He added that during his decades of involvement as both a Boy Scout and, later, a leader, he never heard anything so partisan.
"This is so inappropriate," he added.