President Donald Trump reportedly said a war with Iran was "closer than you thought" and downplayed military brain injuries during an annual luncheon with TV anchors at the White House on Tuesday.
The lunch is a tradition where the president and members of the new media are able to speak off-the-record before the State of the Union address. Details of the conversation were leaked to numerous news outlets by unnamed people.
According to a Wall Street Journal report on Tuesday, Trump claimed that a war with Iran was far closer than what people expected.
Tensions rose between the U.S. and Iran during the first days of January, after a Iranian-backed militia attack killed a US contractor in December. Trump retaliated with a drone strike in Iraq that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Iran then fired a barrage of missiles at two Iraqi military bases housing US troops.
Sixty-four U.S. service members were diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury following those missile strikes. After the attack, Trump said the situation had de-escalated and that the "American people should be extremely grateful and happy" because no service members were hurt.
"We suffered no casualties. All of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases," Trump said at the time.
About 60% of those troops have returned to duty, Defense Department spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said at a press briefing on Monday.
Following the diagnoses, however, Trump dismissed the seriousness of the TBI cases.
"I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things," Trump said in Davos, Switzerland, in late January. "But I would say, and I can report, it's not very serious, not very serious."
During the luncheon on Tuesday, Trump reiterated his assessment, saying he had seen worse cases, according to The Journal.
Trump's initial remarks about the severity of TBI angered veterans groups, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, one of the largest such organizations in the country.
"The Veterans of Foreign Wars cannot stand idle on this matter," VFW National Commander William Schmitz told Task & Purpose. "The VFW expects an apology from the president to our service men and women for his misguided remarks."
Read more from Business Insider:
- 'It can be a lot more serious than bone spurs': Pete Buttigieg mocks Trump for comparing U.S. troops' brain injuries to 'headaches'
- A leaked recording shows Iran knew from the start it had shot down a passenger jet, Ukraine says
- More and more U.S. troops battered in Iran's missile attack have traumatic brain injuries, and it could be a problem for the rest of their lives