President Donald Trump has been a strong supporter of the U.S. military since taking office. Yet there’s now some suggestion his public positions about the brave men and women in uniform are strikingly different than his private views.
This controversy arose from The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece about the president’s planned visit to France’s Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in 2018.
Trump said at the time the visit was cancelled because the “helicopter couldn’t fly” due to the rain and the Secret Service couldn’t drive him to the cemetery.
Goldberg suggests “neither claim was true.” Rather, it was because Trump “feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and … did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day.”
Trump reportedly told senior staffers, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” He also reportedly described the 1,811 marines killed at the Battle of Belleau Wood in the First World War as “suckers.”
The lines were similar to his attack on the late U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2015. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said not long after he launched his presidential run. “I like people who weren’t captured.”
When McCain died in 2018, Goldberg wrote, three sources claimed the president told senior staff, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.” And, when flags were lowered to half-mast, he said, “What the f— are we doing that for? Guy was a f—ing loser.”
Goldberg senses “Trump’s understanding of heroism has not evolved since he became president. According to sources with knowledge of the president’s views, he seems to genuinely not understand why Americans treat former prisoners of war with respect. Nor does he understand why pilots who are shot down in combat are honored by the military.”
The president’s critics were euphoric about this new revelation. His supporters pounced on The Atlantic and declared the story nothing more than fake news.
What should we make of all this?
For one thing, the timing of this piece is highly suspect. Revisiting a two-year-old story out of the blue exactly two months before the presidential election is either a remarkable coincidence or a political tactic.
All of the sources are anonymous. While it’s not unusual for interviewees to keep their names out of stories for personal/private reasons, it weakens the overall analysis. If we don’t know who these people are, and what their relationship to Trump is or was, their motivation for speaking out is impossible to interpret.
Trump wasn’t interviewed for this piece and White House staff didn’t respond to Goldberg’s calls for comment. Deadlines obviously have to be kept, but a story like this needed an official response or rebuttal. Waiting a couple of days would have been more prudent. (White House spokesperson Alyssa Farah emailed Goldberg after the story was published. Her critique has been published on the magazine’s website.)
It’s worth noting that Goldberg, like The Atlantic, has a liberal political perspective. While that’s perfectly acceptable, it means their general viewpoint about Trump tends to be negative. Like it or not, that’s part of the equation.
Finally, Trump has consistently supported the military during his first presidential term. This includes speeches, policies, financial aid for veterans and visits to military bases.
What about the attack against McCain?
It was offensive but the intent is often misinterpreted. A defining characteristic of Trump’s presidency has been his regular use of the royal ‘we’ to make an assessment, when it’s really intended for one person or small group of individuals. His divisive remarks about PoWs were therefore spoken in generalities, while the sole target of his disdain is blindingly obvious.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s Michael Kranish wrote a Sept. 6 piece detailing the president’s “long track record of incendiary and disparaging remarks about veterans and military service” as a private citizen.
That’s fair comment but people can always change their minds over time.
Goldberg’s insinuation that Trump privately disparaged the U.S. military to senior staff doesn’t make sense as it stands.
There are some important caveats, however.
If an audio recording of Trump’s rumoured conversations with senior officials exists, then it should be released. And if former chief of staff Gen. John Kelly, who may have been involved in one of these rumoured conversations, breaks his silence, that should be taken into account.
And if this story turns out to be true, Trump’s re-election bid will be toast.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.