Pete Buttigieg, a military veteran and Democratic candidate for US president, has accused Donald Trump of faking disability to avoid serving in the Vietnam war.
The US president received five deferments from the draft, four for university and one for the medical reason of bone spurs in his heels. Last year the New York Times reported claims that a doctor made the diagnosis as a favour to Trump’s father.
Buttigieg, who took a seven-month leave of absence from his job as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to serve in Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the navy reserve, said: “I have a pretty dim view of his decision to use his privileged status to fake a disability in order to avoid serving in Vietnam.”
Speaking at a Washington Post event on Thursday, the 37-year-old continued: “I mean, if he were a conscientious objector, I’d admire that, but this is somebody who, I think it is fairly obvious to most of us, took advantage of the fact that he was a child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place.
“I know that dredges up old wounds from a complicated time during a complicated war, but I am also old enough to remember when conservatives talked about character as something that mattered in the presidency, and so I think it deserves to be talked about.”
Buttigieg, a polyglot whose father was a Maltese immigrant, has shot from obscurity to become a leading contender in the Democratic primary, in part because of his potential appeal to voters in the industrial midwest. He is bidding to become the first openly gay US president and the first millennial president. His husband, Chasten, has gained an enthusiastic following on social media.
Asked whether Trump should be impeached, a question currently dividing Democrats, Buttigieg replied: “As a young Democrat, I’ve learned to think cautiously before offering advice to Nancy Pelosi. But what I’ll say is that it’s very clear that the president deserves impeachment and the case for impeachment is being built each passing day by the White House. What we have now is a steady process of taking away any semblance of respect for the rule of law.”
He added: “As to when and how the House goes about launching those procedural steps to get the inquiry up and running, I’m going to leave that to the House. Because I know that regardless of how that process unfolds, we’ve got a political job to do as well.”
In a packed room, Buttigieg was also asked how, as a military veteran, he felt about NFL players “taking the knee” during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. “I felt that I was watching Americans exercise a right that I had put my life on the line to defend,” he replied. “The point of defending free speech is not that you expect to be perfectly aligned with every speech act that is protected.
“It’s that that is a fundamental American freedom, it’s a huge part of what makes America America, and when that same flag was on my shoulder, I didn’t think of the flag as something that itself as an image was sacred, I thought of it as something that was sacred because of what it represented, and one of the very things it represented is the freedom of speech, and that’s one of the reasons I served.”
Later, interviewer Robert Costa asked him: “Is President Trump a racist?” Buttigieg replied: “I think so. If you do racist things and say racist things, the question of whether that makes you a racist is almost academic. The problem with the president is that he does and says racist things and gives cover to other racists.
“It’s not an accident that hate crimes rose disproportionately in places that his campaign visited … Without having to examine his heart, there’s no question that we have to respond to the racism that is emanating from this White House.”
Buttigieg also described the challenge of taking on Trump in a debate as “crazy uncle management”.