A new article by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg could sink President Donald Trump’s prospects for reelection—but only if one more thing happens.
Remember when Trump canceled a visit to the American military cemetery just outside Paris in 2018, marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War? His no-show was blamed at the time on the weather. But Goldberg now reports that wasn’t true. Instead, “according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day,” as he puts it, Trump just didn’t want to go. “Why should I go to that cemetery?” the president said. “It’s filled with losers.”
In a separate conversation on that same trip, Goldberg reports, Trump referred to the 1,800 Marines who lost their lives in the German offensive at Belleau Wood, near that cemetery, as “suckers” for getting killed.
He also told aides that he didn’t understand why the United States intervened on the side of the Allies in World War I, asking them, “Who were the good guys in this war?”
Goldberg also tells a hair-raising story about Trump’s visit to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2017. Joining him was retired Gen. John Kelly, then secretary of homeland security. The two were going to visit the grave of Kelly’s son, Robert, a Marine first lieutenant who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. But Trump—while standing by that grave—turned to the father and said, of all the Marines buried there, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
Kelly initially believed—according to “people close to him”—that Trump was making “a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force.” But later, he “came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.” One of Kelly’s friends, a retired four-star general, told Goldberg that Trump “just thinks that anyone who does anything, when there’s no direct personal gain to be had, is a sucker.”
These stories are much worse than Trump’s 2015 jab at John McCain, saying that he didn’t deserve the title of “war hero” because he’d been shot down. This is a jab at millions of Americans whose friends or relatives were killed in one war or another. It’s a jab at the concept of military service, the entire idea of duty, honor, and sacrifice.
Judging from a recent poll in Military Times, Trump has already lost favor among active-duty military officers. The statements quoted in the Atlantic article could sink his presidency.
There is an obstacle, though. Goldberg notes that a White House spokesperson emailed him, after the story was posted, denouncing the entire report as “false.” Later in the evening, Trump himself tweeted that the story was “more made up Fake News given by disgusting & jealous failures in a disgraceful attempt to influence the 2020 Election!”
The denial might carry some weight because all of Goldberg’s sources—some of them generals, including at least one four-star general—spoke to him on background (meaning they could be quoted but not identified by name). And so, it becomes a matter of Goldberg’s word versus Trump’s—or, in the eyes of Trump supporters, a “fake-news reporter” versus “my president.” As a result, the story, which would otherwise be political dynamite so close to an election, might shift few, if any, votes.
Here, then, is my proposal: If these stories are true, Goldberg’s sources—especially the generals, the more highly decorated, the better—must go on the record.
This would be unusual. Generals don’t like to go on the record when talking about anything controversial, and certainly not when dissing a sitting president. This is true for retired generals as well, who feel no less bound by the ethos of respecting civilian authority and staying out of politics.
But by talking to Goldberg about these events at all, these generals waded deep into the political swamp. They must have thought it important for the public—for voters—to know this side of the man in the White House. They must, deep down, feel despair over the possibility that this man—who holds their professions, their values, and their patriotism in such contempt—might serve as president for another four years.
One or more of these generals should weigh the competing values: their loyalty to the president versus their loyalty and lifelong dedication to the security of the nation and the lives of their fellow service members.
It shouldn’t be a tough choice.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.