An explosive report alleging that President Donald Trump has disparaged dead U.S. military service members threatens to further imperil his struggling bid for a second term, with his Democratic opponent Joe Biden seizing on the moment just two months before the election.
Trump angrily denied The Atlantic magazine’s report on Thursday, and the White House has mounted a furious effort to rebut its details, including public denials by Vice President Mike Pence and his top national security adviser, retired Army Gen. Keith Kellogg.
But Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, said that while he hadn’t heard the remarks himself, they sounded like something the president would say.
“This is a very important political issue for Trump and he’s in a difficult position at this point,” Bolton said Friday in a Bloomberg Radio interview. “I have not heard anybody say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like the Donald Trump I know.’”
Trump’s support within the military has slipped since his 2016 campaign. About 43 percent of active-duty service members back Biden, compared to 37 percent, who support Trump, according to a poll by the Military Times newspaper and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families conducted in late July and early August.
Biden’s campaign organized a conference call for reporters Friday morning with Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a veteran who lost her legs in combat, and Khizr Khan, a Trump critic whose son Humayun was killed while serving in the Army in the Iraq War.
“I take my wheelchair and my titanium legs over Donald Trump’s supposed bone spurs any day,” Duckworth said. Khan said that the president is “incapable of understanding service, valor and courage.”
The Atlantic reported that Trump’s disparagement of the military included privately calling Sen. John McCain, a Navy veteran, a “loser” after his death in 2018 and objecting to lowering the White House’s flags to half-staff in his honor, details Bloomberg News corroborated with two people familiar with the matter.
The magazine also reported that Trump called Marines who died defending Paris from the Germans in World War I “losers” and “suckers” after a presidential trip to visit their cemetery outside the city was canceled in November 2018. Bloomberg News has been unable to corroborate those remarks, and three people familiar with the matter disputed that Trump said them.
The Atlantic report said Trump wondered aloud during the same trip why the U.S. joined France and the U.K. in the war against imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary, asking, “Who were the good guys in this war?”
Biden assailed Trump in a speech on Friday, invoking his own son, Beau Biden, a veteran who died of brain cancer in 2015.
“When my son was an assistant U.S. attorney and he volunteered to go to Kosovo, while the war was going on, as a civilian, he wasn’t a ‘sucker,’” Biden said. “When my son volunteered to join the United States military as the attorney general, and went to Iraq for a year, and won the Bronze Star and other commendations, he wasn’t a ‘sucker.’ The service men and women, particularly those who did not come home, are not ‘losers.’
“If these statements are true,” he said, “the president should humbly apologize to every Gold Star mother and father and every Blue Star family he’s denigrated and sullied.”
The Associated Press said it had also confirmed some of the Atlantic’s account. The Atlantic reported that the White House did not respond to requests for comment before its article was published.
The cemetery visit, part of an official trip to Paris to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, was canceled when bad weather grounded Trump’s helicopter, according to a redacted email the White House released. The Secret Service ruled out a motorcade, saying it was too far a trip, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The Atlantic reported that Trump canceled the trip because he didn’t want to get his hair wet. Several people familiar with the matter refuted that.
“It was a strict weather call and I didn’t hear him say those things. Now, did he say those things to other people later in the day? It’s certainly possible,” said Bolton, who accompanied Trump on the trip. “These comments are despicable. If he made them, they are despicable.”
In his memoir published earlier this year, Bolton observed that Trump received negative press coverage for skipping the cemetery visit. He wrote that the president was displeased throughout the trip and “unfairly” blamed John Kelly, then his chief of staff, “marking a possibly decisive moment in ending his White House tenure.”
Kelly departed the administration the next month.
The magazine also asserted that in 2017, while visiting the Arlington National Cemetery grave of Kelly’s son, Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, Trump turned to John Kelly and said: “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
Bloomberg News has not been able to corroborate the incident.
Kelly declined to comment for the Atlantic article, the magazine said, and has not publicly refuted the report. Kelly and Trump’s former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — two of the senior-most military officers to serve in Trump’s administration — have recently become public critics of the president.
Bolton said that Trump regularly questioned how the country, and its soldiers specifically, benefited from the wars they fought, chalking it up to the president’s “transactional” view of the world.
“I think he was prone to say, from time to time: ‘What did they get out of it? What was the worth of the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan?’” Bolton said, calling it an “insensitivity that Trump does have” about military service.
Trump acknowledged criticizing McCain and did not deny that he was skeptical of lowering the White House flags after his death.
“As far as John McCain is concerned, I was never a fan. I will admit that openly,” Trump said Thursday. “But I still respected him. And I had to approve his funeral as president. We lowered the flags.”
Miles Taylor, a former top official under Trump at the Department of Homeland Security who’s now an outspoken critic of the president, said on Twitter that Trump was “angry that DHS notified federal buildings to lower the flags for Sen. McCain.”
The administration is bracing for leaks from military leadership ahead of the election, one person familiar with the matter said. Bolton — who has said he will vote for neither Trump nor Biden — said he isn’t surprised to see Trump try to quickly rebut the article.
“The military typically should, could be expected to support the Republican candidate very heavily, but I think there are many, many in the military who are not going to do that,” he said.