The White House released a sharply worded statement defending Trump — who has insulted POWs, traded barbs with grieving families of the dead and said before he was president that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases was his own “personal Vietnam” — against accusations that he doesn’t respect the military.
“This report is false. President Trump holds the military in the highest regard,” White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said of the Atlantic’s reporting. “He’s demonstrated his commitment to them at every turn: delivering on his promise to give our troops a much needed pay raise, increasing military spending, signing critical veterans reforms, and supporting military spouses. This has no basis in fact.”
Trump then spoke to reporters late Thursday after arriving back in Washington from a campaign trip to Pennsylvania. He angrily denied the article’s claims, calling it a “disgrace” and the sources “lowlifes.”
“I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes,” he said. “There is nobody that respects them more. So, I just think it’s a horrible, horrible thing.”
He also tweeted about the article, claiming he “was never a big fan” of the late senator John McCain but that he never called him a loser. “I never called John a loser. I swear on whatever, or whoever, I was asked to swear on, that I never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES,” Trump wrote. “This is more made up Fake News given by disgusting & jealous failures in a disgraceful attempt to influence the 2020 Election!”
In a 2015 interview, Trump called McCain a “loser.” It was in the same conversation in which Trump questioned McCain’s heroism, but he called him a “loser” in the context of his losing the 2008 presidential election.
Trump was “offended” by the claims in the report, said his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, speaking with reporters aboard Air Force One late Thursday. Another White House official, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, an adviser to Vice President Pence, tweeted that the Atlantic report is “completely false.”
“Absolutely lacks merit,” said Kellogg, who spoke last week at the Republican National Convention. “I’ve been by the president’s side. He has always shown the highest respect to our active duty troops and veterans with utmost respect paid to those who have given the ultimate sacrifice and those wounded in battle.”
A former senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, confirmed to The Washington Post that the president frequently made disparaging comments about veterans and soldiers missing in action, referring to them at times as “losers.”
In one account, the president told senior advisers that he didn’t understand why the U.S. government placed such value on finding soldiers missing in action because they had performed poorly and gotten caught and deserved what they got, according to a person familiar with the discussion.
Trump believed people who served in the Vietnam War must be “losers” because they hadn’t gotten out of it, according to a person familiar with the comments. Trump also complained bitterly to then-Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that he didn’t understand why Kelly and others in the military treated McCain, who had been imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War, with such reverence. “Isn’t he kind of a loser?” Trump asked, according to the person familiar with Trump’s comments.
Trump, who received a medical deferment from Vietnam over alleged bone spurs, has said as much publicly about McCain. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump derided McCain’s legacy as a war hero, saying of his years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump often boasts of his support for the military but often exaggerates his record. Service members have received annual pay increases every year for decades, not just under Trump. The president has falsely claimed he produced the first pay raise for service members in a decade. However, Trump did produce the largest one-year increase in pay since 2010, according to Pentagon data.
The first expansion of veterans’ health care to include private-sector doctors, often touted by Trump as the centerpiece of his veterans advocacy, began under President Barack Obama following the wait time scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital in 2014.
Trump’s Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, issued a lengthy statement Thursday night saying that if the Atlantic report is true, “then they are yet another marker of how deeply President Trump and I disagree about the role of the President of the United States.”
“I have long said that, as a nation, we have many obligations, but we only have one truly sacred obligation — to prepare and equip those we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families, both while they are deployed and after they return home,” Biden said.
The Atlantic report focuses in part on Trump’s decision in 2018 to pull out at the last minute from a planned visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. The White House pointed at the time to poor flying conditions for his helicopter and a concern of interrupting traffic in Paris, about 50 miles away from the cemetery outside Belleau.
Meadows said Thursday that Trump had wanted to attend the ceremony but that bad weather prevented him from flying there, and a two-hour search for a motorcade was unsuccessful. Two officials on the trip, including then-press secretary Sarah Sanders, disputed that the president’s reason for not attending the ceremony was his distaste for those killed in war.
But critics at the time speculated he was simply not up for the visit. The weather and traffic did not keep Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron from visiting other sites around the capital.
But Trump allegedly asked senior staff members, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” according to the Atlantic article. He also referred to the 1,800 soldiers and Marines who died as “suckers” for getting killed, the Atlantic reported.
There are few campaigns more steeped in U.S. military lore than the Battle of Belleau Wood, named after the nearby town. The verdant hillside shrine of arcing headstones marks the final resting place of 2,289 U.S. troops, many of whom were killed in the battle. The names of 1,060 more who were never found are inscribed on a wall there.
The day of the planned visit, Nov. 10, 2018, was also the 243rd birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. Beyond the battle for Iwo Jima in World War II, the struggle for Belleau Wood may be the service’s most revered campaign in its history. A brigade of Marines joined two Army divisions in the closing months of the war and fought brutal hand-to-hand combat in the wood, occasionally contending with swirling poison gas.
The Atlantic also depicts a scene between Trump and Kelly at the graveside of Kelly’s son, who died at age 29 in Afghanistan, on Memorial Day 2017. Trump reportedly said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” A person with knowledge of the conversation confirmed this to The Post, and said Kelly came to understand that Trump couldn’t grasp the concept of sacrifice for something greater than yourself.
Trump also couldn’t comprehend why some of the high-ranking military men serving in his administration such as Kelly and former defense secretary Jim Mattis would choose that path. He regarded their rank as a sign of accomplishment, but also of squandered earning potential.
“You seem like fairly talented guys — why would you do that? You don’t make any money,” Trump said, according to the former official, who added of Trump: “Everything is transactional to him.”
Josh Dawsey, Greg Miller and Anne Gearan contributed to this report.