Four reputable news outlets, all citing anonymous sources, report President Donald Trump disparaged US troops, veterans, and missing service members, with several outlets reporting he has called military members “losers.” Yet the president, along with current and former staff on the record, continues to dispute those stories.
The reporting is explosive. The denials are emphatic. And the consequences are potentially enormous.
Trump has built a lot of his political stock on being seen as a big military booster, often referencing his administration’s large defense budgets and push for military parades as evidence. But the stories — first in the Atlantic, followed by the Associated Press, Washington Post, and New York Times — could further damage his faltering support among service members and those who care about the armed services just ahead of the November election.
The Atlantic reports that during a trip to France two years ago, Trump didn’t want to visit a cemetery where American military service members were buried, during the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
His reasons? Among them, the bad weather might mess up his hair. He also felt the cemetery was, in his estimation, “filled with losers,” and that the nearly 2,000 Marines buried there were “suckers” for getting killed in a storied World War I battle.
The Atlantic story also details other disturbing incidents: that Trump railed against lowering American flags after Sen. John McCain’s death because McCain “was a fucking loser,” and that during a Memorial Day visit in 2017 to the grave of then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s son, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, Trump asked why anyone would volunteer to serve in the military. “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” he asked the fallen Marine’s father.
The reports have the potential to fuel a major line of attack by former Vice President Joe Biden and Democrats for weeks to come. On Friday afternoon, the Biden campaign used the quotes from the Atlantic’s story in an ad against the president.
Mr. President, if you don’t respect our troops, you can’t lead them. pic.twitter.com/hcX9hGgdm5— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 4, 2020
It’s therefore, unquestionably, in Trump’s political interest to deny the reports as strongly as he has.
“If they really exist, if people really exist that would have said that, they’re lowlifes and they’re liars,” Trump told reporters late on Thursday night about the Atlantic story. “And I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more,” adding, “What animal would say such a thing?”
Trump has received public support from many past and current officials who were with him in France, adding credibility to his easily dismissed denial.
I was with POTUS in France, with Sarah, and have been at his side throughout it all. Complete lies by “anonymous sources” that were “dropped” just as he begins to campaign (and surge). A disgraceful attempt to smear POTUS, 60 days before the Presidential Election! Disgusting!! https://t.co/mQfCNUlyZm— Dan Scavino (@DanScavino) September 4, 2020
This could turn out to be a big moment in the presidential race, in Trump’s presidency, and perhaps for his legacy as commander in chief. It’s worth it, then, to spend some time parsing through what, exactly, the reporting says, what the specific denials are, and how they match with the facts as we know them.
What the Atlantic reported about Trump’s alleged remarks
On Thursday evening, the Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, published his story titled “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’” — and its contents were impossible for many to ignore.
The most important tidbits come in the second paragraph, where Goldberg details why, during a 2018 visit to France to commemorate the end of World War I alongside other leaders, Trump didn’t want to travel to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris where US troops are buried:
Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.
Just take a moment to let that sink in. It’s the head of a top US magazine reporting that the American president chose not to honor US war dead because of vanity and because he feels anyone who died in combat — even during an important fight for Marines during World War I — is a “loser” or “sucker.” That alone is a stunning development that could be very damaging to Trump, although partisanship appears very strong in 2020.
But two items deserve further mention here.
First, the Atlantic’s sources for those scenes are “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day.” It’s unclear from that attribution whether they actually heard Trump say those comments directly, or if they heard about his remarks from someone who did.
That lack of specificity may be to protect the sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. After all, if Goldberg wrote “according to four people to whom Trump made those remarks,” then it’d be pretty easy for the administration to identify those people. Plus, without not-for-attribution reporting, some misdeeds or scandals wouldn’t come to light for fear of retribution. Still, not knowing exactly who heard what — with none of the sources on the record — muddies the picture.
Second, and more importantly, there’s evidence to suggest Trump’s decision not to travel to the cemetery had nothing to do with his hair.
Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News’s Jason Leopold via the Freedom of Information Act seem to show the US Navy canceled Trump’s helicopter ride to the cemetery due to the bad weather. An email obtained by the Washington Examiner on Thursday night, relayed to the outlet by an unnamed White House official with the sender’s and receiver’s names redacted, appeared to confirm a “BAD [weather] call” had been made.
Regarding the lede of this story: I obtained documents from the Navy via #FOIA about Trump's 2018 trip to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris and the documents say his transport was canceled by the Navy due to rain. https://t.co/oNWsvAPy1z pic.twitter.com/keFtW7QC8b— Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) September 4, 2020
Other accounts don’t place the blame on Trump. The New York Times reported on Thursday that Zachary Fuentes, a deputy White House chief of staff at the time, was the one who decided Trump shouldn’t travel by helicopter and assured the president it was okay to miss the event. And former National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote in his deeply unflattering-to-Trump book that the president didn’t go to the cemetery solely because of poor conditions:
Marine One’s crew was saying that bad visibility could make it imprudent to chopper to the cemetery. The ceiling was not too low for Marines to fly in combat, but flying POTUS was obviously something very different.
If a motorcade were necessary, it could take between ninety and a hundred and twenty minutes each way, along roads that were not exactly freeways, posing an unacceptable risk that we could not get the President out of France quickly enough in case of an emergency. It was a straightforward decision to cancel the visit ...
The press turned canceling the cemetery visit into a story that Trump was afraid of the rain and took glee in pointing out that other world leaders traveled around during the day. Of course, none of them were the President of the United States, but the press didn’t understand that rules for US Presidents are different from the rules for 190 other leaders who don’t command the world’s greatest military forces.
Bolton is referring to the fact that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron went to the cemetery despite the weather, and were joined by then-Chief of Staff John Kelly after he was driven to the site. However, the president did give a speech in Suresnes, France, the next day during a ceremony hosted by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
The canceled trip isn’t the only scene the Atlantic reported on. Here’s a quick list with the main revelations:
- During that same trip, Trump asked his staff, “Who were the good guys in this war?” — that is, World War I — and why the US would intervene to help allies during the fight.
- Per three unnamed sources “with direct knowledge,” Trump didn’t want his administration to support McCain’s funeral (to which the president wasn’t invited). “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral,” Trump told aides, and then got upset when he saw flags at half-mast: “What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser.”
- Three unnamed sources “with direct knowledge” also confirm that Trump — on at least two occasions — referred to former President George H.W. Bush as a “loser” for getting shot down as a Navy pilot in Japan during World War II.
The McCain part has an on-the-record defender. Miles Taylor, who served as chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security from 2017 to 2019, tweeted Friday morning that Trump’s staff told him the president was angry about the lowered flags. (Taylor has endorsed Biden.)
Mr. President, this is not true. You were angry that DHS notified federal buildings to lower the flags for Sen. McCain. I would know because your staff called and told me. https://t.co/C28fqZ4Whu— Miles Taylor (@MilesTaylorUSA) September 4, 2020
What the Atlantic reported is jarring and merits pause. But it’d be fair to greet the Atlantic story with a bit of skepticism, especially since none of what was reported came from sources on the record.
That’s where the corroborating reporting from other trustworthy outlets comes into play.
Three other outlets confirm much of the Atlantic’s reporting
Hours after the Atlantic story broke, the Associated Press had two unnamed sources — a senior Defense Department official and senior Marine Corps officer — confirm the report. Per the AP, Trump decided not to visit the cemetery in France after receiving his daily briefing on November 10, 2018, the day of the planned trip. And while members of the National Security Council and the Secret Service told Trump he could still drive to the site, Trump said no because the cemetery was “filled with losers.”
That’s important, as the AP’s reporting backs what the Atlantic revealed: Trump, during the morning of the scheduled visit, decided not to visit the war memorial and cemetery solely because he didn’t respect who was buried there.
The Washington Post broadly confirmed Trump’s feelings on US war dead. On Thursday night, the paper had an unnamed former senior administration official confirm that Trump “frequently made disparaging comments about veterans and soldiers missing in action, referring to them at times as ‘losers.’”
The Post’s story then added some context:
In one account, the president told senior advisers that he didn’t understand why the U.S. government placed such value on finding soldiers missing in action because they had performed poorly and gotten caught and deserved what they got, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
Trump believed people who served in the Vietnam War must be “losers” because they hadn’t gotten out of it, according to a person familiar with the comments. Trump also complained bitterly to then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that he didn’t understand why Kelly and others in the military treated McCain, who had been imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War, with such reverence. “Isn’t he kind of a loser?” Trump asked, according to the person familiar with Trump’s comments.
Trump’s animosity toward McCain is well known. In 2015, Trump derided McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, saying, “I like people who weren’t captured.” That’s something he said live, on the record, on video — not in private or disclosed by an anonymous source.
The New York Times on Friday morning also published a story that bolsters the reports that, in private, Trump blasts military service.
People familiar with Mr. Trump’s comments say he has long scorned those who served in Vietnam as being too dumb to have gotten out of it, as he did through a medical diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels. At other times, according to those familiar with the remarks, Mr. Trump would marvel at people choosing military service over making money.
The Times, like others, based its reporting on unnamed “people familiar” or “those familiar.” But it does track closely with what the Atlantic, the AP, and Washington Post all revealed.
Altogether, it’s a bad look for Trump. Multiple trustworthy outlets, citing unknown people familiar with his comments, report that he’s said some disturbing things about the military and those who serve in uniform. The president’s saving grace, for the moment, is that no one has come forward to speak on the record about those comments — and those who are speaking on the record largely support his side.
Trump and his allies vehemently dispute these reports
Trump has taken every opportunity he’s had so far to push back on all the reports about his comments.
“I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes,” he said on Thursday. “There is nobody that respects them more. So, I just think it’s a horrible, horrible thing.”
And, of course, he tweeted a staunch denial to his millions of followers for good measure.
..Country, had to be approved by me, as President, & I did so without hesitation or complaint. Quite the contrary, I felt it was well deserved. I even sent Air Force One to bring his body, in casket, from Arizona to Washington. It was my honor to do so. Also, I never called..— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 4, 2020
....John a loser and swear on whatever, or whoever, I was asked to swear on, that I never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES. This is more made up Fake News given by disgusting & jealous failures in a disgraceful attempt to influence the 2020 Election!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 4, 2020
There are many reasons to be skeptical of Trump here. He simply lies all the time, and he has often denied reports that later turn out to be true. Plus, there’s already a falsehood in his Twitter denial: Trump has openly called McCain a “loser” before — despite his saying he “never” had — so it’s possible he continued to do so even after the senator’s death.
But Trump has a lot of backup from aides who were with him during that France visit.
One of the first was Jordan Karem, formerly Trump’s body man and personal aide. He tweeted on Thursday night that he was next to Trump “the whole day!” and that “The President was greatly disappointed when told we couldn’t fly” to the cemetery.
Again, this is 100% false. I was next to @POTUS the whole day! The President was greatly disappointed when told we couldn’t fly there. He was incredibly eager to honor our Fallen Heroes. https://t.co/8YZlWS83I3— Jordan Karem (@JordanKarem1) September 4, 2020
Sarah Sanders, the former White House press secretary, called the Atlantic’s story “total BS.”
“I was actually there and one of the people part of the discussion - this never happened,” she tweeted on Thursday night.
The Atlantic story on @realDonaldTrump is total BS. I was actually there and one of the people part of the discussion - this never happened. I have sat in the room when our President called family members after their sons were killed in action and it was heart-wrenching...— Sarah Huckabee Sanders (@SarahHuckabee) September 4, 2020
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser, also chimed in to deny the Atlantic’s reporting: “The Atlantic story is completely false. Absolutely lacks merit.”
The Atlantic story is completely false. Absolutely lacks merit. I’ve been by the President’s side. He has always shown the highest respect to our active duty troops and veterans with utmost respect paid to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and those wounded in battle.— Keith Kellogg (@generalkellogg) September 3, 2020
Others, including current White House spokesperson Alyssa Farah and communications adviser Dan Scavino — the latter of whom was with Trump in France two years ago — pushed back on all the reporting.
That’s a lot of people, many at the scene of reported events, offering emphatic, unequivocal, on-record denials. That definitely carries weight, especially since none of the reports featured anyone speaking on the record about the president’s comments.
But again, the Trump administration has been less than truthful on multiple occasions — believe me, I know — so it’s completely fair not to believe what Trump and his allies are saying. It’s also worth noting that none of the president’s supporters specifically say Trump never called war dead “losers” or “suckers” or that he didn’t berate McCain in private. The denials are more general, stating that none of what reported happened.
Simply put, the denials are less specific than the reporting.
What would help clear this up — right now — is if any of the sources who spoke to the outlets or anyone else who heard Trump’s comments came forward to state on the record what they know. As of this moment, it’s the word of a lot of trustworthy reporters relaying what unnamed people are saying against the word of untrustworthy people being openly clear about where they stand.
The sources speaking publicly surely wouldn’t end the controversy — there will always be people who back the president no matter what — but their public comments would shed light on one of the most consequential stories of the Trump era. The truth about all this is vital information, especially ahead of an election.