Top administration officials on Sunday said they’ve never heard President Donald Trump make disparaging remarks about veterans or the military, a subtle attempt to dispute a report in The Atlantic. But the president’s top defender was the president himself.
Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, reported last week that Trump in November 2018 told senior staff that the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris was “filled with losers” and that in a separate conversation he called the 1,800 Marines who died at Belleau Wood “suckers” for getting killed.
Trump was also furious when the White House lowered flags to half-staff following Arizona Sen. John McCain’s death, Goldberg reported, and the president told senior staff that they wouldn’t “support that loser’s funeral,” adding that the war hero “was a f--king loser.” Goldberg reported that Trump made similar comments about President George H.W. Bush, whose plane was shot down during World War II.
The Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN and Fox News all confirmed some elements of The Atlantic’s 1,500-word report, but Trump and his allies have denied since Thursday that he made such comments.
On Sunday, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie credited Trump for what he called a “renaissance” at the VA and grouped the allegations with past stories citing unnamed officials that the president has dismissed as fake news and hoaxes.
“I think anonymous are the same people that brought you fake heart attacks, fake strokes, Russian collusion,” Wilkie told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”
“I see the proof in the pudding,” he added. “The proof in the pudding is our military is stronger, and our Veterans Affairs Department is in a place that it has never been. This is the renaissance, and it’s all because of one man.”
Wilkie downplayed Trump’s past comments toward McCain, whom the president in 2015 said was not a war hero, as “politics” in the “heat of a campaign.” Trump, however, was running for president while McCain was seeking reelection in the Senate.
And the VA chief declined to get into a “he said, she said with the president and the former chief of staff” when asked whether he agreed with Trump’s assessment that Gen. John Kelly didn’t do a good job in that position. Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday that Kelly “had no temperament,” “petered out,” “got eaten alive” and “was unable to handle the pressure of his job.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Bret Baier on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump “supports the military in an unbelievable way.” Mnuchin said he’s been with the president at Arlington National Cemetery, the World War II Memorial and the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial.
“I think this president has enormous respect for the military and for the generals,” Mnuchin said. “This president respects and supports the U.S. military.”
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described Trump’s reported comments as “beneath the dignity of any commander in chief,” if true. Hagel, a veteran of the Vietnam War, encouraged the anonymous sources to come forward if they feel so strongly. But he also suggested that Trump’s own words and actions make the story believable, including his comments about McCain, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Kelly, who also led the Department of Homeland Security before joining and leaving the White House.
“He’s on the record with saying things himself over the past few years,” Hagel told Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week.” “And that makes the credibility of this article and those anonymous comments more and more credible.”
Trump was in France in November 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, but opted to cancel a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, citing forecasts of bad weather. In place of Trump, Kelly and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the ceremony. In addition, other world leaders went on with their scheduled events, including French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trump’s defense of himself Sunday was to go on the attack. The president accused news organizations of partnering with the Democratic Party on “a massive Disinformation Campaign” and urged his 85 million Twitter followers to let the magazine’s owner “know how you feel!!!”
“The Democrats, together with the corrupt Fake News Media, have launched a massive Disinformation Campaign the likes of which has never been seen before,” Trump tweeted Sunday morning. “They will say anything, like their recent lies about me and the Military, and hope that it sticks... But #MAGA gets it!”
Nearly three hours earlier, before 7 a.m., the president amplified a tweet from Charlie Kirk, head of Turning Point USA, who said Laurene Powell Jobs has donated at least $500,000 to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign and noted that she owns a majority stake in the news magazine.
“Steve Jobs would not be happy that his wife is wasting money he left her on a failing Radical Left Magazine that is run by a con man (Goldberg) and spews FAKE NEWS & HATE,” Trump said. “Call her, write her, let her know how you feel!!!”
Speaking in defense of his article, Goldberg told CNN’s Brian Stelter on “Reliable Sources” that he felt comfortable publishing the story because he spoke to multiple people “with firsthand knowledge of the president’s views and comments.”
“That’s the only reason to publish anything,” he said. “And I felt it was important to publish because, in my experience and in our collective experience, I don’t think we’ve had a president who has contempt for American soldiers, wounded veterans, people who’ve been killed in action. So it’s incredibly novel. It’s one of these things that’s in the category of shocking yet not surprising.”
Goldberg said he also expects more confirmation, reporting and new nuggets of information to emerge “in the coming days and weeks.”