Trump Faces Fallout From Report He Calls Military 'Losers' And 'Suckers'
Updated at 6:56 p.m. ET
President Trump is vehemently defending himself against allegations that he has privately disparaged veterans for their military service during his time in office even as his campaign has sought to showcase his support for those in uniform.
The characterization of Trump as a commander in chief who privately denigrates veterans even while he publicly lavishes praise upon them and claims them as part of his voting base is freighted with political risk ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was quick to jump on the issue, calling Trump's alleged comments "disgusting" and calling for him to apologize.
The bombshell article, written by the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, cited unnamed sources who said Trump referred to American Marines who died in World War I as "losers" and "suckers" and recounted several other anecdotes of Trump making cruel remarks about people who serve in the military. NPR has not verified the contents of the story, though other outlets have corroborated parts of The Atlantic's reporting.
At a press conference Friday, Trump called the report a "hoax" and a "continuation of the witch hunt" against him.
Trump earlier said the story was "a total lie," and White House officials who were present for some of the incidents described in the article have issued statements disputing the story and pointing to Trump's record on military issues.
"If people really exist that would have said that, they're lowlifes and they're liars. 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," Trump told reporters.
Asked whether he would apologize, Trump said no, and cited his public support for the military. "To me, they are absolute heroes," he said at an Oval Office event.
Facts:— Alyssa Farah (@Alyssafarah) September 4, 2020
-@realDonaldTrump gave a pay raise to our troops
-We're rebuilding & modernizing our military to meet 21st century threats
-He's enacted crucial reforms to support vets
-He's stood up for military families
-He's delivering on his promise to bring our troops home
"The White House reaction makes it clear that they view this as politically toxic for the president," said Peter Feaver, who served in senior national security positions in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. "It undermines so vividly a core plank of their reelection campaign that he's the president who has rebuilt the military."
When he entered office, Trump surrounded himself with retired generals in key roles, including Jim Mattis as defense secretary; John Kelly as homeland security secretary and later chief of staff; and H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. But his relationships soured over time.
He long sparred with Republican Sen. John McCain, calling him a "loser" on Twitter in 2015 and attacking him even after his death.
Trump was criticized for canceling his appearance at a 2018 ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France, because of rain. The White House said the decision was taken because of rain and fog, but The Atlantic article said he didn't want to get his hair wet. On Friday, Trump said the White House has documented how the stop was canceled because of weather.
The White House also provided testimonials from a list of people who were there and who said The Atlantic was wrong.
Asked why Kelly was missing from that list, Trump slammed the retired marine general as having "no temperament" for the job, as a "tough guy" who was "eaten up" and "totally exhausted" by the rigors of being his chief of staff – though he stopped short of blaming Kelly as one of the unnamed sources in the article. "I don't know that it was him," he said. "It could have been a guy like a John Kelly."
The Military Times this week said a poll of service members in late July and early August showed support slipping for Trump. Nearly half of those polled had an unfavorable view of Trump. The poll said 41% of respondents would vote for Biden, compared with 37% for Trump.
Last month's Republican National Convention featured a parade of military veterans showing their support for Trump. But the Democratic National Convention sought to stake out ground with Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War veteran, as well as Republican national security professionals who said they are voting for Biden rather than Trump.
In his remarks Friday, Biden cited the military service of his late son, Beau, saying, "He wasn't a sucker." The former vice president brought up other times in which, he said, Trump disrespected the military, including the president's references to traumatic brain injuries suffered by U.S. military personnel as "headaches" earlier this year.
"Who the heck does he think it is?" Biden said at a news conference in Wilmington, Del.
Responses from both sides of the political spectrum to The Atlantic article highlights the growing politicization of the military, Feaver said.
"What this is doing is dragging the military more and more into the center of the political campaign. And that is not where they want to be," he said. "It's not good for the country, for them to be there. And they've been drawn there repeatedly by supporters of the president and by opponents of the president, that both sides are guilty of politicizing the military in this way."
Reaction to The Atlantic article on social media was swift and harsh. Hours after it published, Democratic-leaning political action committee VoteVets.org released an attack ad featuring the response of gold star families.
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Donald Trump called our fallen troops "suckers" and "losers."— VoteVets (@votevets) September 4, 2020
They can't speak for themselves, but these 6 Gold Star families speak for our fallen.
Here is their POWERFUL message.#GoldStarParentsAgainstTrump #VeteransAgainstTrump pic.twitter.com/ZnbFevqkNR