In 2016, Army veteran David Weissman was an “unapologetic, red-hat wearing” Donald Trump supporter. The Palm Bay, Fla., resident would regularly join social media mobs attacking liberals, he later wrote, seeking to defend a candidate who he said rightfully prioritized the armed forces.
“I recommend all veterans to use their Military pics as a profile pic,” Weissman wrote on Twitter on Thursday evening, “to let Trump know how many people he has offended.”
Weissman’s online call to arms underscored the outpouring of anger that erupted from military veterans and their families overnight against Trump, following a bombshell article in the Atlantic that Trump and several top aides have vehemently denied.
In a video on Twitter, retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who has spoken out against Trump before, described how his father was shot down while delivering air support to troops on the ground in Vietnam.
“I am stunned that anybody in the United States military would consider you anything but a loser or a sucker,” Eaton said, addressing Trump and urging viewers to vote against him in November. “You’re no patriot.”
Boot camp Great Lakes 1986 I did 11 years. Qualified in submarines. Electronics Technician for Navigation subsystem on Ballistic Missile submarines. Now just a proud disabled veteran wanting to save this country from Trump and the GOP #NewProfilePic pic.twitter.com/5IeQxemEuq— Charles Parmele (@ceparmele) September 4, 2020
As first reported by the Atlantic and later confirmed in part by other media outlets, including The Washington Post, Trump said wounded veterans should not march in a military parade and canceled his visit to a French cemetery for American Marines killed in World War I because he had no interest in honoring his country’s war dead.
The president — who received a medical deferment from the Vietnam War — also repeatedly questioned why anyone would join the armed forces, notably in comments to his then-chief of staff, John F. Kelly, according to the Atlantic.
“I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” he asked on Memorial Day 2017, standing beside the grave of Kelly’s son, who was killed in Afghanistan at age 29, the Atlantic reported.
White House officials swiftly rejected the accounts in the Atlantic article, calling them false and noting late Thursday that the president has demonstrated his admiration for service members through an increase in military spending and key policy reforms for veterans.
“I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes,” Trump said in Washington late Thursday, upon his return from a campaign trip to Pennsylvania. “There is nobody that respects them more. So, I just think it’s a horrible, horrible thing.”
Yet the disparaging remarks described in the Atlantic are hardly the first time that Trump has spoken ill of the armed forces.
Despite a long history of revering generals, the president has criticized his former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, a retired four-star general, as “not tough enough” and “overrated.”
In 2015, while discussing Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam prisoner of war, Trump said on camera that he prefers veterans who weren’t captured. Upon McCain’s death in 2018, Trump waited two days to lower flags and issue a formal statement, buckling under pressure from veterans’ groups.
Many of Trump’s previous comments do not appear to have hurt his approval rating among former U.S. service members. In July 2019, a Pew Research Center study found that a majority of veterans approved of his decisions as commander in chief, and nearly half said his policies had strengthened the armed forces.
In the politically polarized environment of 2020, about two months away from the election, some question whether this time could be different.
Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the reports of Trump’s disparaging comments were “the last full measure of his disgrace,” altering a line from the Gettysburg Address.
“When you serve, you do so selflessly. You don’t do it for the paycheck, the medal, or the uniform. You do it because you believe in America,” Crow wrote in a statement. “That’s something Trump will never understand.”
VoteVets, a liberal political action committee that supports veteran candidates and mobilizes the veteran vote, quickly seized on the Atlantic story as a chance to boost Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“There is no rhyme or reason for Trump to cruelly attack our nation’s fallen heroes,” Will Goodwin, the group’s director of governmental relations, said in a statement. “Soon, with the votes of millions of veterans and active duty service members, we will again have a President and Commander in Chief worthy of the title — Joe Biden.”
For plenty of veterans online, though, the PAC won’t need to do much convincing to get them to the polls.
“My dad died at 46 from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Trump says he’s a loser. My grandpa went down in the South Pacific in WWII. Trump just called him a sucker,” wrote Allison Gill, a podcast host and former Veterans Affairs official. “I’m a disabled vet, but not an amputee so trump says I can be in a parade. The choice is clear.”
My dad died at 46 from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Trump says he’s a loser. My grandpa went down in the South Pacific in WWII. Trump just called him a sucker. I’m a disabled vet, but not an amputee so trump says I can be in a parade. The choice is clear. #BidenHarris2020— Allison Gill (@allisongill) September 4, 2020