Legal Analysis

Trump’s ‘Bone Spur’ Exemption from Vietnam May Have Been Illegal

President Donald Trump famously avoided serving in Vietnam due to a series of medical deferments issued because of “bone spurs” in his heels. A Wednesday exposé in the New York Times casts some doubt on the official narrative. While light on documentary evidence, the implication is that a podiatrist and longtime tenant of Fred Trump‘s used his position as a medical doctor to fake the diagnosis that kept Trump’s son out of the violent and unpopular Cold War entanglement. If true, that likely would have been illegal.

In June of 1964, 18-year-old Trump registered with the Selective Service System. Throughout his four years of college at the University of Pennsylvania, Trump received four education deferments and when those ran out he was eventually eligible to be drafted in 1968.

The Times report notes:

Beginning in October 1968, records show, Mr. Trump had a 1-Y classification, a temporary medical exemption, meaning that he could be considered for service only in the event of a national emergency or an official declaration of war, neither of which occurred during the conflict in Vietnam. In 1972, after the 1-Y classification was abolished, his status changed to 4-F, a permanent disqualification.

These medical deferments were apparently obtained after a diagnosis issued by Dr. Larry Braunstein–who died in 2007. There’s also some speculation that one Dr. Manny Weinstein played a part. Real estate records show that both men lived and practiced in various Trump-owned properties over the years–and there’s also an unverified claim that Weinstein may have “had a connection” to the local draft board which could have smoothed the multi-party process of alleged fraud along. No medical records are cited in the Times report–and none appear to exist either in private collections or public archives–but Braunstein’s own daughter is adamant that her father helped the younger Trump avoid the draft as part of a quid pro quo arrangement with the elder Trump.

“I know it was a favor,” Dr. Elysa Braunstein told the Times. “What he got was access to Fred Trump. If there was anything wrong in the building, my dad would call and Trump would take care of it immediately. That was the small favor that he got.”

Assuming the story is true–that Donald Trump was gifted a false diagnosis–would this arrangement have been illegal? Almost certainly.

The law on point here is codified at 50 U.S.C. § 3811 and reads, in relevant part:

[A]ny person who shall knowingly make, or be a party to the making, of any false statement or certificate regarding or bearing upon a classification or in support of any request for a particular classification … or who otherwise evades or refuses registration or service in the armed forces or any of the requirements of this chapter, or who knowingly counsels, aids, or abets another to refuse or evade registration or service in the armed forces … by force or violence or otherwise…shall, upon conviction in any district court of the United States of competent jurisdiction, be punished by imprisonment for not more than five years or a fine of not more than $10,000, or by both…

Here, the allegation appears to be that Dr. Larry Braunstein was doing his landlord Fred Trump a solid–in exchange for access and steady rental rates. There’s no claim or implication that Donald Trump himself was party to this arrangement–and that’s not exactly implausible (again, assuming the fraud actually did occur.) As the Mayo Clinic notes, “[m]ost bone spurs cause no signs or symptoms.”

In other words, only the parties to any fraud fraud would have been liable–but even assuming all the alleged claims in the Braunstein story are true, those principals are dead anyway and the statute of limitations has long since tolled. Selective Service crimes expire after five years.

The Times report does note some inconsistency from the 45th president regarding how he avoided Vietnam. Trump previously claimed he was spared the horrors of Vietnam “ultimately” due to a high lottery number–the Selective Service System switched to a draft lottery in 1969 over criticism that the previous system was skewed to benefit the wealthy and well-connected.

[image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

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