WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump faces explosive allegations he repeatedly disparaged members of the military and described America's war dead as "losers" and "suckers" – accusations he has angrily denied.
The Atlantic magazine described a 2018 meeting with senior officials in France in which Trump discussed why he was cancelling a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris to honor America's war dead.
The president publicly blamed the cancellation of the visit on safety concerns expressed by the Secret Service due to rain which made it impossible to fly a helicopter there.
But The Atlantic, citing four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day, reported Trump said in the meeting he didn't want to go because he didn't want his hair to get disheveled in the rain and he didn't see why he should honor dead soldiers.
“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” the magazine quoted Trump as saying. The report said he referred to the more than 1,800 marines who died at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.
While The Atlantic was the first to report the allegations about Trump's comments on the cemetery visit, two sources confirmed some of Trump's remarks to the Associated Press: A senior Defense Department official with firsthand knowledge of the events and a senior U.S. Marine Corps officer who was told about Trump’s comments.
The AP reported Defense officials said Trump made the comments as he begged off visiting the cemetery outside Paris during a meeting on the morning of Nov. 10, 2018.
Here's what we know about the accusations, Trump's response and the reaction to them:
Trump denies making the comments
Trump said Thursday people who would suggest he said such things are "low lifes 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," he told reporters.
Trump did cancel the cemetery visit
Trump, on the advice of aides, did cancel a cemetery visit during his 2018 trip to Paris, officials said, because the fog and rain would have made a helicopter ride challenging. Secret Service and other security officials warned of a low ceiling for flying and said a motorcade would have been problematic because it could have been caught in traffic, making Trump a stationary target.
Numerous officials, then and now, denied he canceled the trip because he did not want to honor the dead or otherwise be out in the rain.
After the incident, Trump blamed the Secret Service by tweeting: "When the helicopter couldn’t fly to the first cemetery in France because of almost zero visibility, I suggested driving. Secret Service said NO, too far from airport & big Paris shutdown."
The final decision belonged to the president himself, officials acknowledged.
Report: Trump didn't want wounded veterans included in military parades
In addition to the comments about the cemetery visit, The Atlantic reported several other instances where Trump disparaged military members.
According to the magazine, he told staff he didn't want wounded veterans included in military parades because spectators might feel uncomfortable seeing amputees.
Trump: 'There's nobody' who respects fallen soldiers more
Trump told reporters "there is nobody that respects" fallen soldiers more than he does.
He said he wanted to go to the ceremony in France but that the Secret Service informed him "there was no way I would have been able to do it." Trump said he spoke with first lady Melania Trump at the time and expressed his disappointment.
Trump doesn't understand the idea of why so many people would sign up for military service, risking their lives for low pay, said two Trump advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
Some of Trump's comments about veterans, including those who have died in combat, can be subject to misinterpretation, officials said, but they declined to be specific.
That said, they defended Trump by saying it is a lack of understanding and that he admires and respects those who wear the uniform.
Trump’s long feud with McCain
The Atlantic reported Trump remained fixated on the late Sen. John McCain, who had continued to criticize Trump once he became president. The magazine, citing three sources, said when McCain died in August 2018, Trump told his senior staff that “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral” and became furious when he saw flags lowered to half-staff.
Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff at the department of Homeland Security, tweeted at Trump on Friday: "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."
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
Trump and McCain have a complicated history that dates back many years, even before Trump launched his campaign for president. The late senator's war record was one of Trump's early complaints.
Trump, considering a run for president, criticized McCain's war service as he sized up other potential candidates in an interview on CBS in 2000. “He was captured,” Trump said, in remarks he would echo years later. “Does being captured make you a hero? I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
Most Americans caught their first glimpse of the feud when Trump, speaking in Iowa four years later, questioned whether McCain was “a war hero because he was captured" in the Vietnam War. Trump, who did not serve in the war, said he liked “people that weren’t captured.”
McCain’s inner circle informed the White House in 2018 the ailing senator did not want Trump to attend his funeral, according to The New York Times.
Trump has continued his attacks against McCain, telling reporters in 2019: “I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be."
McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain, wrote on Twitter late Thursday the loss of her father “is still incredibly painful and raw.”
Regarding Trump, “No one is more acutely aware of how vile and disgusting Trump has been to my family, it is still hard to understand,” she wrote. “America knows who this man is...”
In pushing back on the Atlantic story, Trump was eager to discuss the actions he had taken following McCain’s death to demonstrate he respected the late Arizona senator if he nevertheless frequently disagreed with him.
But as he has in the past, Trump overstated what steps he took for the McCain family and brushed aside the repeated -- and often personal -- criticism he leveled at McCain after his death.
“I had to approve his funeral as president. We lowered the flags. I had to approve that, nobody else, I had to approve it. When you think – just thinking back, I had to approve either Air Force One or a military plane to go to Arizona to pick up his casket,” Trump told reporters late Thursday. “And I approved it immediately.”
Neither Trump nor the White House has ever explained what he means when he claims he “approved” McCain’s funeral, which was held at the National Cathedral in Washington and did not require approval from the White House. Trump's role in the services was limited to allowing McCain's body to fly on planes used as Air Force Two.
The lowering of the flag for McCain was also not without controversy. Federal law requires flags to be flown at half-staff for two days after the death of members of Congress, but presidents have often signed proclamations extending the honor for prominent people until burial. Trump had signed such orders previously, including for former first lady Barbara Bush, but did not do so for McCain until after a public outcry from veterans groups and others when flags were raised two days after McCain’s death.The White House quickly lowered the flags again.
"McCain didn’t get the job done for our great vets and the VA, and they knew it," Trump said in March 2019 at an event in Ohio.
"I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted -- which, as president, I had to approve. I don’t care about this. I didn’t get 'thank you.' That’s okay," Trump said during that same event. "We sent him on the way. But I wasn’t a fan of John McCain."
Trump's fraying relationship with the military
Trump’s relationship with the military, particularly its leadership, has frayed over the last year. Pentagon leadership has clashed with him over their desire to remove the names of Confederate generals from military bases and over the use of active-duty troops to quell domestic protests following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
A recent poll by the Military Times showed support from Trump among the ranks has fallen. Almost half of the more than 1,000 troops surveyed held a negative view of him when asked in July and August, down from 42% last year. When he took office in 2017, 37% of respondents held a negative view.
Trump often publicly voices support for the military and signed into law a 2.4% pay raise for troops in 2018 and another 2.6% raise the following year. The raises were the troops’ largest in a decade.
On Friday, Trump backed off of plans to shut down Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper that has been a lifeline and a voice for American troops since the Civil War. A Pentagon memo obtained by USA TODAY ordered the publisher of the news organization to dissolve by Sept. 15. But Trump tweeted Friday that the funding would not be cut “under my watch” and promised that the paper “will continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!”
Biden: My son Beau 'wasn't a sucker'
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said Trump’s comments reported in the Atlantic are “disgusting” if true. Biden said this might be as close as he’s come to losing his temper during the campaign.
“Quite frankly, if what is written in the Atlantic is true, it’s disgusting,” Biden told reporters Friday in Wilmington, Delaware, before a speech on the economy. “Donald Trump is not fit to do the job of president, the commander in chief.”
Biden noted that his son Beau volunteered to go to Kosovo and to Iraq, where he earned a Bronze star.
“He wasn’t a sucker,” Biden said.
Biden also said the service members, particularly those who didn’t come home, “were not losers.”
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the remarks attributed to Trump in the Atlantic article are jarring to read but sound credible given what Trump has said about veterans in the past.
"Our veterans fought for a better America – a more perfect America – and Donald Trump dishonors them through his words, his actions and his politics," Takano said. "To me, this is the greatest desecration of the sacrifices of all veterans. Mr. President, veterans are not 'losers.' They are not 'suckers.' They are patriots."
Veterans' groups react
The story landed amid evidence Trump is struggling politically with the military vote.
A Military Times poll published this week – based on surveys of 1,018 active-duty troops surveyed in late July and early August – said 49.9% had an unfavorable view of the president, compared to about 38% percent who had a favorable view.
Some veterans’ groups reacted angrily over Trump’s reported comments.
"This story doesn’t just make me angry. It’s disgusting,” tweeted Will Goodwin, a West Point graduate and director of government relations for VoteVets, a progressive political action committee. “It makes me feel sick. It’s disgusting. It’s an unthinkable betrayal.”
Wall of Vets, a group that supports the Black Lives Matter movement, also responded angrily on Twitter, saying “this is the Commander in Chief and this is how he views our fallen brothers and sisters."
David Weissman, an Army combat veteran who describes himself as an “apologetic former Trump supporter,” recommended veterans post their military photos as a profile picture on Twitter “to let Trump know how many people he has offended by calling soldiers losers and suckers.”
Contributing: Bart Jansen
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump calls military dead 'losers.' He denies claim in Atlantic