The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s callous alleged comments about military veterans vs. what he’s said very publicly

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes what President Trump has allegedly said about fallen troops and how those statements echo previous comments by the president. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

An Atlantic story containing a series of damaging quotes attributed to President Trump about the military and war dead shook up the 2020 presidential race on Thursday night. And Trump was quick to respond with a broad — and in the case of the late senator John McCain, specific — denial.

“I never called … John a loser and swear on whatever, or whoever, I was asked to swear on, that I never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES,” Trump tweeted.

Except Trump has most definitely called McCain a loser — in fact, he was so proud of doing so in 2015 that he tweeted a headline of him saying exactly that.

Trump’s denial may have been intended to mean he never called McCain a loser in this specific instance. But the fact is that Trump’s past commentary makes it utterly believable that he did. While the anonymously sourced quotes in the Atlantic are remarkably callous, Trump’s public commentary on the same subjects has also often pushed the bounds of good taste.

Below are some of the big quotes from the Atlantic’s piece, compared with things Trump has done and said.

McCain as a ‘loser’

The specific instance in which Trump allegedly called McCain a “loser” was following his death in 2018. Via the Atlantic’s story:

When McCain died, in August 2018, Trump told his senior staff, according to three sources with direct knowledge of this event, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral,” and he became furious, according to witnesses, when he saw flags lowered to half-staff. “What the f--- are we doing that for? Guy was a f---ing loser,” the president told aides.

As noted above, Trump did call McCain a “loser” in 2015, questioning his status as a war hero and saying of the former prisoner of war, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

It was hardly the only time Trump attacked McCain viciously, and he continued to insult McCain even in death. Trump’s attacks remained very personal, including going after McCain’s academic record.

The idea that Trump was sore over giving McCain a state funeral is also believable based upon Trump’s actions and comments surrounding the ceremonies. For instance, he complained that the McCains didn’t give him sufficient thanks for approving military transportation for the funeral.

“I didn’t get a thank you, that’s okay,” Trump said. “We sent him on the way. But I wasn’t a fan of John McCain.”

The White House also notably, after McCain’s death, returned its flags to full-staff even as flags at the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument remained at half-staff — later reversing course amid criticism. Former Department of Homeland Security aide Miles Taylor, who has offered a number of very serious allegations about Trump in recent weeks, confirmed that White House staff told him Trump was angry about flags being lowered for McCain.

None of this proves that Trump called the recently deceased McCain a “loser” in 2018, but he most definitely called him a loser before that and suggested he was not a war hero. He even suggested he was being magnanimous by complying with the pomp and circumstance of McCain’s funeral — as if McCain was not necessarily entitled to such things.

Oh, and this wasn’t even the first time Trump has denied calling McCain a loser. He also did so in a February 2016 MSNBC interview — just seven months after the tweet in which he called McCain a loser.

George H.W. Bush as a ‘loser’

McCain isn’t the only war-hero-turned-Republican-politician Trump is described as having attacked as a loser:

On at least two occasions since becoming president, according to three sources with direct knowledge of his views, Trump referred to former president George H.W. Bush as a “loser” for being shot down by the Japanese as a Navy pilot in World War II.

Again, the “I like people who weren’t captured” quote applies here. (Bush wasn’t captured; Trump’s comments suggest he also might not respect people being shot down.) A former senior administration official confirmed to The Post that Trump frequently derided soldiers who were captured and missing in action as “losers.”

Trump also attacked Bush from time to time over the years, though nothing along the lines of his attacks on McCain. He publicly offered laudatory comments after Bush’s 2018 death.

In light of this, a reporter asked him the day after Bush died, “Do you regret any of your comments about George H.W. Bush or the Bush family?” Trump listened to the question, paused and dismissed the reporters in the room without answering.

John Kelly’s son and “suckers”

A particularly poignant section deals with Trump visiting the gravesite of his then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s son, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010:

… According to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” Kelly (who declined to comment for this story) initially believed, people close to him said, that Trump was making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.

Another stunning section recalls Trump referring to the war dead as “suckers”:

“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” 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. …
Trump, on that same trip, asked aides, “Who were the good guys in this war?” He also said that he didn’t understand why the United States would intervene on the side of the Allies.

And another scene:

According to eyewitnesses, after a White House briefing given by the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, Trump turned to aides and said, “That guy is smart. Why did he join the military?”

The author of the piece, Jeffrey Goldberg, quotes people around Trump saying he genuinely does not have regard for people who died for their country, viewing them as having failed — and has even derided or at least not understood their decisions to serve in the first place.

Trump has employed the “sucker” language when it comes to the military and questioned what the United States gets out of protecting Western Europe. After announcing the removal of troops stationed in Germany earlier this year, Trump said, “Germany is not paying for it. So why should we leave them if they were not — we don’t want to be the suckers anymore.” (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is generally intended to protect the Western world — the “common defense” — not just Germany or even Europe.)

Trump in 2017 was also alleged by a congresswoman and the mother of a fallen soldier, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, to say on a phone call with them that Johnson “must have known what he signed up for.”

Trump has also offered occasionally callous comments about his lack of service and compared his nonmilitary actions to military service.

Of his controversial deferment for bone spurs from the Vietnam War, Trump suggested that his actions as president compensated for it. “I would have been honored” to serve, Trump said, “but I think I make up for that right now. Look, $700 billion I gave last year, and this year $716 billion. And I think I’m making up for it rapidly, because we’re rebuilding our military at a level it’s never seen before.”

He also responded to Gold Star parent Khizr Khan saying Trump had never sacrificed for his country by saying, “I think I have made a lot of sacrifices. I’ve worked very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures.”

The idea that these things could be any kind of substitute for military service isn’t generally how military service is understood. But it does suggest a certain view of the value of service.

Not wanting to feature wounded veterans

And one final scene, from the end of Goldberg’s piece:

In a 2018 White House planning meeting for [a military parade], Trump asked his staff not to include wounded veterans, on grounds that spectators would feel uncomfortable in the presence of amputees. “Nobody wants to see that,” he said.

Trump’s public record on this topic is less robust.

But as USA Today reported in May, Trump has spent significantly less time visiting wounded warriors than his predecessor. While President Barack Obama visited them 29 times in eight years, Trump had made just three visits in three years. (Trump would make another visit in July.) Trump, however, has held multiple events with the Wounded Warrior Project at the White House.

Trump also offered somewhat off-color comments when he was given a replica of a man’s Purple Heart at a rally in 2016.

“Something very nice just happened to me. A man came up to me and he handed me his Purple Heart,” Trump said. “I said to him, is that the real one, or is that a copy? He said, ‘That’s my real Purple Heart. I have such confidence in you.’ And I said, ‘Man, that’s big stuff.’”

“I always wanted to get the Purple Heart,” Trump continued. “This was much easier."

Again, it doesn’t prove Trump said what he’s reported to have said, but it’s relevant.