Retired US military leaders have reacted furiously to yesterday’s bombshell story claiming Donald Trump insulted fallen American soldiers, calling them “losers” and “suckers”.
The article, published in The Atlantic, alleged Mr Trump made the derogatory remarks during a trip to France in 2018, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.
“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” the US President reportedly said on the morning of his scheduled visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. That visit was later cancelled due to bad weather.
The cemetery stands at the site of the Battle of Belleau Wood, where more than 1800 US marines died stopping a German push towards Paris in 1918.
In a different conversation, Mr Trump allegedly called the soldiers “suckers”.
‘A TOTAL LIE’: TRUMP DENIES THE STORY
Before we get to the reaction, which has been fierce, I want to give you Mr Trump’s side of the story here.
In a rare late-night statement to reporters yesterday, the President strenuously denied having made any such comments.
“It’s a total lie. It’s fake news,” Mr Trump said.
“If they really exist, if people really exist that would have said that, they’re lowlifes and they’re liars. And I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes.
“I just think it’s a horrible, horrible thing. It made a great evening into frankly a very sad evening, when I see a statement like that. No animal, nobody – what animal would say such a thing?”
He was largely having a go at The Atlantic’s four sources, who claimed to have “first-hand knowledge” of the President’s comments, but were not named by the article’s author, Jeffrey Goldberg.
It is important to stress that point – so far, nobody has put their name to these claims.
However, shortly after the article was published, AP investigative reporter James LaPorta said he had confirmed it “in its entirety” with an anonymous “senior Defence Department” official.
And The Washington Post later confirmed, again with an anonymous “senior administration official”, that “the President frequently made disparaging comments about veterans and soldiers missing in action, referring to them at times as ‘losers’”.
That’s the context. You can make your own judgment about the story’s reliability.
We also need to talk about Goldberg’s first two paragraphs, which allege Mr Trump “rejected the idea” of visiting the cemetery for unsavoury reasons.
“When President Donald Trump cancelled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris on 2018, he blamed rain for the last-minute decision, saying that the ‘helicopter couldn’t fly’ and that the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. Neither claim was true,” he writes.
“Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become dishevelled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honour American war dead.”
Buzzfeed reporter Jason Leopold has previously obtained Navy documents confirming the President’s flight on Marine One was cancelled due to the weather conditions.
The visit’s cancellation was also referenced in former White House national security adviser John Bolton’s recent memoir.
“Marine One’s crew was saying that bad visibility could make it imprudent to chopper to the cemetery. The ceiling was not too low for marines to fly in combat, but flying POTUS was obviously something very different,” Mr Bolton – no fan of the President – wrote.
He also provided an explanation for why Mr Trump was not driven to the cemetery instead.
“If a motorcade were necessary, it could take between 90 and 120 minutes each way, along roads that were not exactly freeways, posing an unacceptable risk that we could not get the President out of France quickly enough in case of an emergency.
“It was a straightforward decision to cancel the visit.”
‘DESPICABLE’: RETIRED GENERALS FUME
Goldberg’s article was met with silence by the United States’ current military brass, but it has provoked outrage from a number of retired officers.
General Mark Hertling, a Purple Heart recipient, described Mr Trump as “incredibly toxic” and said the President had “no understanding of service or sacrifice”.
“It’s tough to speak out right now if you’re an active duty, serving officer. They can’t do that. They have to support and defend the President,” he told CNN.
“The veterans I’ve talked to tonight – and I’ve talked to both low-ranking and high-ranking, retired ones and some active duty – they are furious about this. And they can’t understand why people are still supporting this individual.”
General Michael Hayden, a frequent critic of Mr Trump, retweeted comments calling the President a “thoroughly despicable human being”.
He pointed out that conservatives, including Mr Trump, had slammed NFL player Colin Kaepernick for “disrespecting” the US military by taking a knee during the national anthem in protest against police brutality.
General Paul Eaton posted a video online reacting furiously to the article.
“I’ve got to tell you, it was a tough read,” Gen Eaton said.
“You have the President of the United States call the American military ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’, particularly those who gave their lives.
“When he met with the (former) chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General (Joseph) Dunford, his comment was, ‘That’s a smart guy. Why is he in the military?’
“I’m pretty unhappy with you, Mr Trump. So I’m going to keep this short, for your famous short attention span.
“You have shown disrespect to the military on countless occasions. I am stunned that anyone in the United States military would consider you anything but a loser or a sucker.
“You’re no patriot.”
Gen Eaton held up a dog tag that belonged to his father, who died in the Vietnam War.
“My father was a patriot. Well-educated. He was a wise man. The best men and women in the United States of America are found in the armed forces,” he said.
“Brave men and women. They’re not just brave, they’re smart. And they’re wise.
“So, Mr Trump, come November 3, we’re all voting for a real patriot. Joe Biden. And everybody who hears this, please take notice, and please vote. Vote Democratic. Our country’s honour depends on it.”
The next step here is to see whether any of the sources cited by The Atlantic, AP or The Washington Post decide to go public and reveal who they are.
In the meantime, we’re left with anonymous sources, a very cranky President, and some equally cranky military brass.