President Trump is vehemently defending himself against allegations that he has privately disparaged veterans for their military service during his time in office even as his campaign has sought to showcase his support for those in uniform.
The characterization of Trump as a commander-in-chief who privately denigrates veterans even while he publicly lavishes praise upon them and claims them as part of his voting base is freighted with political risk ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The bombshell article, written by the editor of The Atlantic magazine, cited unnamed sources who said Trump referred to American Marines who died in World War I as “losers” and “suckers” and recounted several other anecdotes of Trump making cruel remarks about people who serve in the military. NPR has not verified the contents of the story.
Trump said the story was “a total lie,” and White House officials who were present for some of the incidents described in the article have issued statements disputing the story and pointing to Trump’s record on military issues.
“If people really exist that would have said that, they’re lowlives and they’re liars. And I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more,” Trump told reporters.
“The White House reaction makes it clear that they view this as politically toxic for the president,” said Peter Feaver, who served in senior national security positions in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “It undermines so vividly a core plank of their reelection campaign that he’s the president who has rebuilt the military.”
When he entered office, Trump surrounded himself with retired generals in key roles, including Jim Mattis as defense secretary; John Kelly as homeland security secretary and later chief of staff; and H.R. McMaster as national security adviser. But his relationships soured over time.
He long sparred with Republican Sen. John McCain, calling him a “loser” on Twitter in 2015 and attacking him even after his death.
Trump was criticized for canceling his appearance at a 2018 ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France, because of rain. The White House said the decision was taken because of rain and fog, but the Atlantic article said he didn’t want to get his hair wet.
The Military Times this week said a poll of service members in late July and early August showed support slipping for Trump. Nearly half of those polled had an unfavorable view of Trump. The poll said 41% of respondents would vote for Democratic candidate Joe Biden compared with 37% for Trump.
Last month’s Republican National Convention featured a parade of military veterans showing their support for Trump. But the Democratic National Convention sought to stake out ground with Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq war veteran, as well as Republican national security professionals who said they are voting for Biden rather than Trump.
Reaction from both sides to the Atlantic article highlights the politicization of the military, said Feaver.
“What this is doing is dragging the military more and more into the center of the political campaign. And that is not where they want to be,” he said. “It’s not good for the country, for them to be there. And they’ve been drawn there repeatedly by supporters of the president and by opponents of the president, that both sides are guilty of politicizing the military in this way.”
Reaction to the Atlantic article on social media was swift and harsh. Hours after it published, Democratic-leaning political action committee VoteVets.org released an attack ad featuring the response of Gold Star families.