— President Trump, at a campaign rally in Minden, Nev., Sept. 12
Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic published an article Sept. 3 that was at once both surprising and not surprising: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’” The president had famously attacked the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), saying he wasn’t a war hero, because “I like people who weren’t captured.” But Goldberg provided what he said were new accounts of Trump’s private remarks disparaging soldiers who died in service of the United States.
The people who recounted these remarks were not identified. In trying to refute the article, the White House has focused on its first anecdote — that Trump canceled a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 because he did not believe it was important to honor American war dead.
“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,’” Goldberg wrote. “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.”
Goldberg attributed the information to “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day.”
It’s often a fool’s game to try to figure out a reporter’s anonymous sources. Sometimes, principals use cutouts — aides who speak to reporters — to give themselves plausible deniability. Or people may deny on the record speaking to a reporter when in fact he or she was a source.
Moreover, other news organizations, including The Washington Post and most notably Jennifer Griffin of Fox News, have confirmed elements of Goldberg’s report. Griffin reported that an unnamed administration official said that “when the President spoke about the Vietnam War, he said, ‘It was a stupid war. Anyone who went was a sucker.’” She also reported that Trump simply did not want to travel by motorcade to Aisne-Marne cemetery. But she also said she could not confirm that the president described the American war dead there as “suckers” and “losers.”
The White House has collected the names of 25 people who claim to refute Goldberg’s reporting on the cemetery decision. Trump called them “witnesses,” but that’s wrong. Eleven people on the list were not with Trump. They are mostly current administration officials serving at the pleasure of the president or communications aides, and so can offer only bromides.
Strikingly, two people who figure prominently in the article — then-White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. — have not commented. Their silence on this explosive story certainly is important in evaluating its accuracy. Both men would have the credibility to refute the reporting, so readers could consider their refusal to comment as some sort of confirmation.
Still, 14 people who were traveling in France as part of the president’s entourage have disputed elements of Goldberg’s report. That sounds like a big number, but you have to consider who is speaking and their level of credibility. You also have to read carefully between the lines of their denials.
Here are the 14 witnesses in order of our assessment of their credibility.
FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER JOHN BOLTON: “I didn’t hear either of those comments or anything even resembling them. I was there at the point in time that morning when it was decided that he would not go Aisne-Marne cemetery. He decided not to do it because of John Kelly’s recommendation. It was entirely a weather-related decision, and I thought the proper thing to do.”
Analysis: Bolton has particular credibility because he is a known Trump critic, having written a book, “The Room Where It Happened,” that depicts the president in highly unflattering terms. Moreover, in the book, Bolton wrote about the decision to cancel the trip to the cemetery, saying the weather was not good enough to ferry the president in a helicopter and a lengthy car drive was “an unacceptable risk” for a president in case of an emergency. (Kelly and Dunford instead traveled by motorcade to represent the United States.)
Still, Bolton also wrote that Trump was “displeased throughout the trip” and quoted then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders as saying Trump was in a “royal funk.” (The trip came right after the midterm elections that cost Republicans control of the House of Representatives.) Bolton told the New York Times, “I’m not saying he didn’t say [the remarks] later in the day or another time.”
FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF ZACH FUENTES: “I did not hear POTUS call anyone losers when I told him about the weather.”
Analysis: Fuentes was deputy to Kelly, making him an important voice. But his interview with Breitbart must be carefully parsed. Fuentes says: “I did not hear POTUS call anyone losers when I told him about the weather.” That’s oddly specific, leaving open the possibility that Fuentes heard such comments at another point — when not discussing the weather.
In fact, Goldberg’s article does not even say the remarks happened during a discussion of the weather. He only mentions “a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit” and “a separate conversation on the same trip.”
Moreover, Fuentes further said the Atlantic’s sources “are conflating those people from something the day after.” That suggests Trump may have said something along these lines, just not on the day in question.
FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT JORDAN KAREM: “This is 100% false. I was next to @POTUS the whole day! The President was greatly disappointed when told we couldn’t fly there. He was incredibly eager to honor our Fallen Heroes.”
Analysis: In a tweet, Karem says he was next to Trump all day and did not hear this. That gives him some standing. The comment is highly specific, focused on Trump’s disappointment about not being able to fly to the cemetery.
COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT DEREK LYONS: “I was with the President the morning after the scheduled visit. He was extremely disappointed that arrangements could not be made to get him to the site and that the trip had been canceled. I have worked for the President for his entire administration. One of my responsibilities is working with him on the many letters he signs to the families of our nation’s fallen heroes. In all my time at the White House, I have never heard him utter a disparaging remark, of any kind, about our troops. In my view, he holds the brave men and women of our armed forces in the highest regard.”
Analysis: This statement was provided secondhand at a White House news briefing, but at least Lyons can assert he had a conversation with the president during the period in question. Still, he said he was with Trump the day after the scheduled visit, not on the day when the reported remarks were made.
Analysis: Denied the Atlantic’s story via a statement issued at the White House, but without any specific quote.
FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF DAN WALSH: “I can attest to the fact that there was a bad weather call in France and that the helicopters were unable to safely make the flight. Overall, the President’s support and respect for our American troops, past and present, is unquestionable.”
Analysis: Another denial via a White House statement. Walsh does not address the substance of the allegation, only confirming there was a “bad weather call.” His use of “overall” is an odd qualifier that suggests he is not completely denying the story.
RETIRED MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM MATZ: “When the President’s visit was appropriately canceled due to weather, I received word also that he was upset he would not be able to make the wreath-laying visit and to pay his respect to the 2300 fallen soldiers and Marines interred there...No one has done more for our veterans than President Trump, and he enjoys a relationship of mutual affection and honor with those who wear and have worn the uniform of the United States military and their families. Those who know President Trump know that the anonymous smears peddled by The Atlantic have no basis in fact or reality, and do a terrible disservice to journalism and to our veterans, living and deceased.”
Analysis: Matz says he “received word” the president was upset about not being able to go. In other words, he did not directly have a conversation with the president.
U.S. AMBASSADOR TO FRANCE AND MONACO JAMIE MCCOURT: “In my presence, POTUS has NEVER denigrated any member of the U.S. military or anyone in service to our country. And he certainly did not that day, either. Let me add, he was devastated to not be able to go to the cemetery at Belleau Wood. In fact, the next day, he attended and spoke at the ceremony in Suresnes in the pouring rain.”
Analysis: She is a political appointee, not a career ambassador. There is no indication she would have been part of discussions on this matter with the president.
FORMER COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT JOHNNY DESTEFANO: “I was on this trip. The Atlantic bit is not true. Period.”
Analysis: A denial with no indication that he would have been present for this discussion.
ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT AND DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF DAN SCAVINO: “I was with POTUS in France, with Sarah, and have been at his side throughout it all. Complete lies by ‘anonymous sources.’”
SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT STEPHEN MILLER: “The President deeply wanted to attend the memorial event in question and was deeply displeased by the bad weather call.”
FORMER PRINCIPAL DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY HOGAN GIDLEY: “These are disgusting, grotesque, reprehensible lies. I was there in Paris and the President never said those things.”
Analysis: Three of Trump’s most loyal aides, one of whom now works for the Trump campaign and two of whom still work at the White House. They would walk through fire for Trump, so caveat emptor.
FIRST LADY MELANIA TRUMP: “@TheAtlantic story is not true. It has become a very dangerous time when anonymous sources are believed above all else, & no one knows their motivation. This is not journalism - It is activism. And it is a disservice to the people of our great nation.”
Analysis: This is the president’s spouse. No one would expect her to do anything but deny an embarrassing story about her husband.
FORMER PRESS SECRETARY SARAH SANDERS: “I was actually there and one of the people part of the discussion — this never happened.”
Analysis: Sanders was a senior White House official at the time and had frequent conversations with Trump. But she has little credibility after admitting during the Robert S. Mueller III investigation that she lied to the media. She further undermined her credibility after the Atlantic report by tweeting an excerpt from an interview with ABC News that included the false claim that Trump made calls to “let a parent know that their son had been killed” in battle. (The military makes such notifications in person, not by phone, and they are not handled by the president.)
For the record, the other 11 denials are from: SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK ESPER; SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO; SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS ROBERT WILKIE; CHIEF OF STAFF MARK MEADOWS; NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER ROBERT O’BRIEN; LT. GEN. AND NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO THE VICE PRESIDENT KEITH KELLOGG; FORMER ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF MICK MULVANEY; FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO THE VICE PRESIDENT NICK AYERS; PRESS SECRETARY KAYLEIGH MCENANY; ASSISTANT TO THE PRESIDENT ALYSSA FARAH; DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY JUDD DEERE. Many of these are broad-based denials lacking specifics.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, the claim that there are 25 “witnesses” is inflated. At best, 14 people denying the story were traveling with the president, but some were not in the room when the alleged conversations took place.
The two most credible denials — from Bolton and Fuentes — suggest that such conversations might have taken place, just not at the time described by Goldberg. Meanwhile, other journalists have reported that they have confirmed other aspects of Goldberg’s reporting, including the broader theme of how Trump fails to understand the notion of sacrifice in the U.S. military.
When faced with a negative story, a common tactic by any government agency — especially the White House — is to seize on one element that may be slightly off in an effort to discredit the entire report. Still, one must also acknowledge that the four individuals for the Atlantic article remain unidentified, compared with the number of people who have denied or disputed elements of the story. The silence of Kelly and Dunford could be taken as tacit confirmation — or simply an unwillingness to defend the president.
We could hand Pinocchios to Trump for inflating the number, but it’s difficult to settle on a rating without determining how many of the 14 witnesses are truly credible. We’ve offered a guide, but it will be up to readers to consider whether the denials — or the no-comments — undermine or bolster the broad thrust of Goldberg’s reporting. If more information emerges, we will update this fact check.
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