This issue is coming to the fore now because of an article in the Atlantic on Thursday by Jeffrey Goldberg. It reports that "according to four people with firsthand knowledge” of the conversation, while on a 2018 trip to France, Trump refused to attend an event at a cemetery containing the remains of American war dead.
“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” the president reportedly said. According to the article, “In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as ‘suckers’ for getting killed.”
Naturally, the White House and Trump himself denied that he has ever said such a thing. But Goldberg’s account was reinforced by the Associated Press and The Post; our reporters write that a former senior administration official confirmed “that the president frequently made disparaging comments about veterans and soldiers missing in action, referring to them at times as ‘losers.’”
We’re accustomed to Democrats insisting that they too respect the military even if their lust for invading other countries doesn’t quite match that of Republicans. But in this presidential race, we have a Democratic candidate whose son served in Iraq and whose wife spent a good portion of her time when he was vice president advocating for military families.
On Friday, Joe Biden addressed the comments in a speech. “When my son volunteered and joined the United States military,” he said, “and won the Bronze Star and other commendations, he wasn’t a sucker. The service men and women he served with, particularly those who did not come home, were not losers.”
Growing visibly angry, Biden added, “Who the heck does he think he is?”
Meanwhile, the very idea of Trump sending his kids to war is laughable. According to his niece Mary, when Donald Trump Jr. considered joining the military, Trump threatened to disown him.
When these stories about Trump come out, they’re usually anonymously sourced, and most of those who do go on the record to describe Trump’s relationship to the military do so gingerly. Three months ago former defense secretary James Mattis released a statement lambasting his former boss after Trump’s disastrous Bible-brandishing photo op outside the White House, calling him “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people."
But Mattis has said very little on the record about the particular things he saw while serving under Trump, even though stories have abounded about the president’s contempt for military personnel and the philosophy that guides them.
For instance, Post reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker describe a meeting early in Trump’s tenure, in which Mattis, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and others attempted to educate the new president on the American military’s role in the international order. Trump grew agitated. “We should make money off of everything,” Trump said, referring to American alliances and military bases around the globe.
“You’re all losers,” he told the assembled military personnel. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”
That story was nearly as shocking as what Goldberg reveals. Both reinforce the idea that there is literally nothing Trump does not consider a zero-sum game where there are only winners and losers, the strong and the weak, the dominators and the dominated. Did you sacrifice for your country? Then you’re obviously a loser, because you should have asked, “What’s in it for me?”
A Trump defender might maintain that even if he holds service members in contempt, that hasn’t made too much practical difference. George W. Bush, who personally displayed great respect for members of the military, did more to harm them than any recent president by launching the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in which more than 5,000 Americans died and tens of thousands more were injured and traumatized.
The truth is that while Trump can be judged a terrible president both because of the things he has done and the person he is, it’s the latter that usually gets more attention (and of course, many of his reprehensible actions have their roots in his character flaws).
But even if it’s the actions that directly affect people’s lives, Trump’s odiousness is a key to this era in our politics. It’s one of the questions we’ll ask ourselves for decades: How did such a vile human being become president of the United States? What does that say about who we are?
Those are complicated questions. And everyone who even for a moment helped this president will have to account for their complicity, and what they did to atone for it. Doing it anonymously may not make them heroes, but it still helps the rest of us understand.
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