Facing the prospect of defeat in November, President Donald Trump is casting about for lies that might save him. On Tuesday night, at a rally in North Carolina, he claimed that Mexico is paying for the border wall (still false), that Joe Biden is planning “a blanket shutdown” to control the coronavirus (false), and that Trump’s supporters, by pretending in polls that they aren’t voting for him, are concealing a “virtual landslide” in his favor. At one point, the president blurted out, “This stuff is not even really believable.” But on one subject, Trump’s lies are particularly reprehensible: his contempt for military service.
That subject has been in the news this week because of an Atlantic article that quotes several statements Trump has made, privately and publicly, about war and sacrifice. In a 2017 visit to the Arlington National Cemetery grave of Robert Kelly, a Marine who died in Afghanistan, Trump allegedly told his father, retired Gen. John Kelly—who was then Trump’s secretary of homeland security—“I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” In a 2018 meeting, Trump asked his aides to omit wounded veterans from a parade because “nobody wants to see that.” In a third incident, Trump said of Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “That guy is smart. Why did he join the military?” In a fourth incident, Trump canceled a 2018 visit to a French cemetery for American service members killed in World War I, saying, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” Trump also called Marines who died in that war “suckers,” and on two other occasions, he called former President George H.W. Bush a “loser” for being shot down while fighting in World War II.
The article, written by editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, attributes these quotes, depending on the incident, to “eyewitnesses,” “three sources with direct knowledge,” or “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion.” Since the sources aren’t named, Trump thinks he can attack them as fake. But in so doing, the president has further exposed his own dishonesty.
On Thursday, when the article was published, Trump dismissed it as a fabrication. He said the magazine “made it up,” and he speculated that its putative sources “don’t exist.” But that defense soon collapsed, as other news organizations—the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, and even Fox News—reported that they, too, had spoken with sources whose accounts matched the article. They described their sources, variously, as “former senior Trump administration officials,” “a senior Defense Department official with firsthand knowledge of events,” and “a senior U.S. Marine Corps officer who was told about Trump’s comments.” In theory, all these sources could be wrong. But Trump’s defense—that the Atlantic had concocted the quotes—was bogus.
Next, Trump targeted one incident—the one about the French cemetery—and produced aides who claimed that they had been present at the alleged meeting and that the visit was canceled only because of bad weather. They said they had never heard Trump call the war dead “losers.” This mirrors Trump’s press strategy against allegations of sexual harassment: Find women who say you didn’t grope them. It’s possible that Trump’s loyalists are recalling one discussion, while the media’s sources are talking about another. Goldberg refers to at least two distinct conversations.
After the article was published, Trump claimed that when officials advised him not to go to the cemetery in France, he argued with them. “The Secret Service told me, ‘You can’t do it,’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘I have to do it. I want to be there.’ They said, ‘You can’t do it.’ ” The next day, Trump said his former national security adviser, John Bolton, backed up his story. But Bolton, while agreeing that he hadn’t heard the quotes about “losers” or “suckers,” stipulated that they could have been said in a separate conversation. On Monday, in a Fox News interview, Bolton added that the Atlantic’s sources were right about Trump’s contempt for Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam POW, and that as to Trump’s “general attitude toward the military,” the president “ends up denigrating almost everybody that he comes in contact with whose last name is not Trump.” Bolton shot down Trump’s story about pleading to go to the cemetery: “We had this discussion. It was mostly John Kelly presenting the logistical reasons why the trip couldn’t take place. And the president assented to the recommendation that he not go. He didn’t protest that he really needed to go.”
Trump has also claimed that, contrary to the Atlantic’s reporting, he approved a ritual lowering of flags “without hesitation or complaint” to honor McCain when the senator died in 2018. But hours after Trump made that claim, Miles Taylor, who had been the DHS deputy chief of staff when McCain died, shredded Trump’s account. “Mr. President, this is not true,” Taylor wrote. “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.”
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been asked repeatedly whether Kelly, the witness at the center of these stories, backs up Trump’s denials. On Friday, CNBC’s Kayla Tausche asked Pence about the cemetery visit: “There were two generals who were reported to have been present, Gen. Dunford and Gen. Kelly. Would you support their speaking out, to set the record straight?” Pence ducked the question. “I wasn’t in Paris, but it never happened,” he insisted. When Tausche asked Pence whether he was confident that Kelly and Dunford would agree, he ducked again. On Monday, reporters pressed Trump twice as to whether he had “asked John Kelly to refute” the Atlantic article. Trump tried to ignore the question and then said he hadn’t. In an ABC News interview on Tuesday, Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders begged off when she was asked to explain Kelly’s silence.
Trump told reporters it was absurd, in general, “to think that I would make statements negative to our military and our fallen heroes.” His campaign spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said the president “would never even think such vile thoughts.” Specifically, Trump denied the Atlantic’s allegation that he had insulted McCain: “I never called John a loser.” It took reporters almost no time to find a 2015 tweet in which Trump not only had called McCain a loser but had bragged about it, along with a video clip in which Trump said of McCain’s five years as a POW, “I like people that weren’t captured.”
In the days since the Atlantic article appeared, Trump has vindicated it—and discredited his denials that he would ever say such things—by bashing Kelly and the military. On Friday, he alleged that as White House chief of staff, Kelly “didn’t do a good job, had no temperament,” and “wasn’t even able to function.” On Saturday, Trump blasted McCain for having facilitated the Russia investigation. On Monday, he claimed that McCain “liked wars,” and he retweeted an allegation that the Atlantic article was an “information op” run by “the military industrial complex.” Trump said “the top people in the Pentagon … want to do nothing but fight wars” in order to “spend money” on behalf of “companies that make the bombs and make the planes.”
Trump has a long and well-documented history of contempt for military service. There’s audio of him congratulating a man for faking a disability, as Trump did, to escape the Vietnam draft. There’s video of him challenging the heroism of being a POW in 1999, as well as in 2015. Videos, transcripts, witness testimony, and his own tweets show him ridiculing American generals in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020. His own family members say he criticized his brother for going into the military and threatened to disown his son if he enlisted.
Exposing Trump’s lies and contempt won’t stop loyalists from defending him. On Sunday, when CNN’s Dana Bash pointed out that he had “denigrated prisoners of war” in his 2015 dig at captured service members, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie shrugged off Trump’s words. “I judge a man by his actions,” said Wilkie. When Bash asked about Trump’s attack on Kelly’s temperament and performance, Wilkie refused to disagree. “I’m not going to get into a ‘he said, she said’ with the president and the former chief of staff,” he replied.
There’s nothing Trump’s cronies won’t excuse. And in this election, tens of millions of people will vote for him, no matter how brazenly he lies and scorns the armed services. But that doesn’t make the truth less worth telling. The president of the United States despises those who sacrificed for our country. And he’s lying about that, just as he has lied about everything else.
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