Since Monday, the White House has emphasized comments by two people in particular: Zach Fuentes, a top former White House aide and ally of John Kelly, and John Bolton, the former Trump national security adviser who wrote a scathing tell-all about his time in the White House. Let’s look at what they and others have said.
The former deputy White House chief of staff’s comments got big play in conservative circles Monday, given his close affiliation with a central figure in the Atlantic’s story: Kelly, who has remained conspicuously silent.
Fuentes told Breitbart that he didn’t speak with the Atlantic and that he believed the anonymous sources behind the reporting “are unlikely first hand accounts.”
And here’s Fuentes’s key claim: “I did not hear POTUS call anyone losers when I told him about the weather. Honestly, do you think General Kelly would have stood by and let ANYONE call fallen Marines losers?”
Breitbart hailed this as Fuentes “unequivocally” denying the Atlantic’s report. But the denial is hardly a complete one, and something else Fuentes said is raising eyebrows.
First, it’s worth noting that “I did not hear” is not the same as “it didn’t happen.” It’s admittedly difficult to offer a full denial unless you were with Trump the entire time, but many of the denials have been in this vein, which technically allows that the comments might have transpired while the deniers were out of earshot.
Second, Fuentes says he didn’t hear Trump call anyone losers “when I told him about the weather” — weather that the White House blamed for an aborted Trump trip to a military cemetery in France. But the Atlantic’s story doesn’t directly connect Trump saying these things to a moment in which he was informed about weather. Instead, it alleges that Trump rejected the visit because he worried about how his hair would look in the rain and because he didn’t feel it important to honor the war dead. It adds:
In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “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.
One could deduce that this conversation happened while discussing the weather, but it’s not directly linked to the deputy chief of staff delivering news on that front.
Nor, importantly, does the report say Kelly was present for the “loser” comment, which Fuentes claims Kelly would never countenance. Instead, Kelly comes up later in the Atlantic’s story, in an allegation about a separate scene from 2017, in which Trump reportedly made a disrespectful comment about service members while visiting the gravesite of Kelly’s son, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
And then there’s the intriguing part of Fuentes’s supposedly “unequivocal” denial.
“They are conflating those people from something the day after” the aborted cemetery visit, Fuentes told Breitbart. He added in another statement to CNN, “Whoever the sources are, they are unlikely first hand accounts, and they are conflating stories.”
Those repeated comments about conflating stories are intriguing. Were there other similar conversations that Fuentes was aware of that didn’t technically come the morning of the aborted cemetery visit? Unfortunately, Fuentes has yet to elaborate on that, and he said, “I don’t think it is my place to divulge private conversations.”
Previously, Trump supporters highlighted a passage in Bolton’s book that offered a different version of the canceled cemetery visit than the Atlantic’s report. Bolton wrote that the cancellation — which was controversial even at the time — was indeed due to weather. Even the guy who wrote a book starkly critical of Trump seemed to dispute the reports, the supporters noted.
Then Bolton on Monday offered a broader and more contemporary denial.
“According to what that article said, the president made disparaging remarks about soldiers and people buried in the cemetery in connection with the decision for him not to go to the ceremony that was planned that afternoon, and that was simply false,” Bolton said, adding: “I don’t know who told the author that, but that was false.”
Again, the timeline here isn’t completely explicit, nor did the Atlantic say who was around Trump when he made the remarks, beyond “senior staff members.”
But Bolton’s denial is slightly broader than Fuentes’s, in that he denies Trump made such remarks not just in one specific conversation in which he was informed of the weather, but “in connection with the decision for him not to go” to the cemetery. The fact that Bolton would publicly stand up for a president he has so derided is also very notable, making this perhaps the more important denial.
The defense secretary, who was with Trump in France, offered a statement saying, “President Trump has the highest respect and admiration for our nation’s military members, veterans and families. That is why he has fought for greater pay and more funding for our armed forces."
This notably doesn’t address any of the specific allegations raised by the Atlantic. Anonymous Defense officials around Esper have more directly disputed that he heard Trump saying what the Atlantic reported, but it’s notable that Esper has not more specifically denied this publicly.
The secretary of state said Friday: “I’ve been with this president coming on four years. I’ve never heard the president use the language” in the Atlantic’s report. “I’ve never seen that. Indeed, just the contrary.”
Pompeo added that, while he was on the trip, he wasn’t involved in the decision not to visit the cemetery.
Pompeo also seemed to qualify how much he was technically around the president. “I can tell you I was with him for a good part of that trip, if I’m thinking about this visit and the timing right, and I never heard him use the words that are described in that article,” he said. “Just I never saw it.”
The then-White House press secretary said flatly Tuesday morning that she was with Trump on the day in question and that “those comments didn’t happen."
Sanders also weighed in on the many former top Trump aides who have criticized Trump since leaving the administration, including Bolton, former defense secretary Jim Mattis and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson — contrasting her new book about her time in the White House with their accounts.
“I think mine is actually the honest account,” Sanders said. “You’re looking at people who have left as disgruntled employees, people who have tried to push their own agenda.”
It’s extremely important to emphasize, though, that despite Sanders’s claim to honesty, she repeatedly misled the media as White House press secretary. She even admitted to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III that she fabricated one important claim about having heard from “countless” FBI employees who agreed with Trump’s decision to fire James B. Comey, later calling it a “slip of the tongue.” Except she offered some version of the claim on three different occasions.
Sanders’s track record should certainly color any acceptance of her version of events.