The fall presidential campaign accelerated into its traditional Labor Day kickoff with fireworks over the weekend over an anonymously sourced report that President Trump regularly disparages U.S. war dead in private — a report Democrats quickly rallied around in an attempt to undermine Mr. Trump’s recent gains in the polls.
While the attempt struggled to gain traction beyond media already critical of the president, Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden led the charge by asserting that Mr. Trump should apologize if the report by The Atlantic claiming Mr. Trump called U.S. Marines who died in World War One “suckers” and “losers” is true.
The president spent the weekend slamming the story as “totally fake,” and by Sunday his administration was the offensive, with Mr. Trump personally lashing out at The Atlantic’s ownership and key administration officials taking to the talk shows to characterize the magazine’s reporting as little more than a sloppily crafted political hit job.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie said he’s “absolutely” never heard Mr. Trump say disparaging things about service members and questioned why not a single on-the-record source had come forward to corroborate The Atlantic story in the three-plus days since it was published.
“Anonymous [sources] are the same people that brought you fake heart attacks, fake strokes [and] Russian collusion,” Mr. Wilkie said in an appearance on CNN, during which he pushed back at one of the network’s anchors who claimed other media were corroborating the Atlantic’s reporting.
“Well, nobody is backing down from the anonymous sourcing on it,” Mr. Wilkie said.
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His comments came after Mr. Trump took to Twitter early Sunday to attack Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, for “wasting” her deceased husband’s money by serving as a prominent financial backer of The Atlantic.
“Steve Jobs would not be happy that his wife is wasting money he left her on a failing Radical Left Magazine that is run by a con man and spews FAKE NEWS & HATE. Call her, write her, let her know how you feel!!!” the president tweeted.
Goldberg defends article
The Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who penned the article in question, also took to Sunday’s talk shows to defend his article, the crux of which claimed Mr. Trump canceled a trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 because he had no interest in honoring the dead soldiers buried there.
“‘Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,’” Mr. Trump reportedly said, according to Mr. Goldberg, who wrote that “four people with firsthand knowledge” of the conversation had told him what the president said.
Mr. Trump also allegedly said the more than 1,800 Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood were “suckers.”
Mr. Goldberg told CNN on Sunday that his decision to publish the article without any on-the-record corroboration from former administration officials was “complicated.”
“It’s a complicated thing, as you well know, we all have to use anonymous sources, especially in a climate in which the president of the United States tries to actively intimidate journalism organizations and people who provide information to journalism organizations,” he said. “But the formula is simple. What you do is you have to say ‘Does the public’s right to know or need to know a particular piece of information outweigh the morally complicated and ambiguous qualities of anonymous sourcing?’”
“In this climate, with information that we judge the voters to need, we are going to use anonymous sources because we think that the public has a right to know, especially when you have four, five or six sources, primary sources, corroborating sources, telling you the same thing,” he said.
More than a dozen current or former Trump administration officials have publicly denounced the report in the last several days, disputing especially The Atlantic’s claim that the publicly stated reason for the cancellation of the cemetery — rain made the planned helicopter trip unsafe — was a mere pretext.
“I can attest it to the fact that there was a bad weather call in France and that the helicopters were unable to safely make the flight,” said Dan Walsh, former White House deputy chief of staff.
One defense of Mr. Trump came from an unexpected source — former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, who also left the White House on bad terms with Mr. Trump and wrote a scathing tell-all book about him.
“I didn’t hear either of those comments or anything even resembling them,” said Mr. Bolton of the “losers” and “suckers” language, while also cautioning in other interviews that he doesn’t think the comments exactly out of character.
“I was there at the point in time that morning when it was decided that he would not go Aisne-Marne cemetery,” he told Fox News. But “it was entirely a weather-related decision, and I thought the proper thing to do.”
However, Mr. Goldberg’s claims were echoed by Mr. Biden, who had claimed Friday that the revelations in The Atlantic article were “disgusting” and noted that they fit a pattern of Mr. Trump, who received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, having no sense of service to anyone but himself.
“It affirms what most of us believe to be true: That Donald Trump is not fit to do the job of president and be the commander-in-chief,” Mr. Biden said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a slightly different tact Sunday.
She suggested it’s irrelevant whether The Atlantic article is true because Mr. Trump publicly “dishonored” the U.S. soldiers buried in Normandy, France, by giving a highly political TV interview while visiting the cemetery to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
“What is important is that the president sat there in front of that cemetery and dishonored that sacred ground by engaging in political anti-rhetoric against some of us who were on the trip, including me,” Mrs. Pelosi told MSNBC on Sunday.
In an interview at the time, Mr. Trump referred to her as “Nervous Nancy” and described her leadership as “a disaster.”
There was no sign over the weekend that outrage over The Atlantic article will slow the gradual comeback in pre-election opinion polls that Mr. Trump enjoyed in August after Mr. Biden took a double-digit lead in the initial wake of the coronavirus surge.
A Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll released Sunday showed Mr. Biden’s lead over Mr. Trump in that key battleground state has evaporated, with the president now ahead of his challenger there by 2 percentage points.
With such numbers as a backdrop, pro-Trump analysts note the president position against Mr. Biden in the polls is now roughly the same as it was between him and Hillary Clinton at this point in 2016.
Some also argue The Atlantic article packed less of a salacious punch than the October 2016 Access Hollywood imbroglio, in which The Washington Post published audio of Mr. Trump make extremely lewd comments about women.
Who was the source?
Mr. Trump told reporters on Friday night that he believes former White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly “could have been” a source for Mr. Goldberg’s article.
“It could have been a guy like a John Kelly,” the president said. “You look at some of his news conferences [at the White House], what happened to him, he got eaten alive. He was unable to handle the pressure of this job.”
Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star general, departed the job on unfriendly terms in early 2019. The president said Mr. Kelly “didn’t do a good job, had no temperament, and ultimately he was petered out.”
While Mr. Kelly has not commented publicly on the article, a significant portion of which is devoted to illustrating an alleged interaction he had with Mr. Trump on Memorial Day 2017, when the two men visited Arlington National Cemetery together.
Mr. Goldberg wrote that the visit included a stop at a section of Arlington where Mr. Kelly’s son Robert — a Marine Corps first lieutenant who was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan — is buried.
“According to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’” the article states.
While Mr. Goldberg wrote that Mr. Kelly declined to comment for the article, The Atlantic editor maintained that “people close to” Mr. Kelly had revealed his own personal reflections on the exchange with the president.
Mr. Kelly “initially believed … that Trump was making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices,” Mr. Goldberg wrote.
Mr. Kelly was serving as Homeland Security secretary in May 2017, and critics of Mr. Goldberg’s article pointed out over the weekend that roughly eight weeks later, Mr. Kelly accepted Mr. Trump’s invitation to become White House chief of staff.
While first lady Melania Trump said on Twitter Friday night that The Atlantic article “is not true,” a range of prominent journalists spent the weekend questioning its veracity.
Jonah Goldberg, executive editor of The Dispatch — a website that describes itself as a purveyor of “fact-based reporting” informed by “conservative principles” — was among the first to suggest The Atlantic may have veered into journalistically unethical territory by publishing the article.
While Mr. Goldberg, who has no relation to The Atlantic editor, tweeted that “the Atlantic story is entirely believable,” he added that “someone should have gone on record and without someone on the record, they should have sat on it.”
Others across the political spectrum appeared to agree.
The New Yorker, for instance, ran with an article over the weekend beneath the headline: “It’s Time for the Former General John Kelly to Speak Out About Trump’s Views on the Military.”
“Other news outlets, including Fox News, have confirmed various parts of the [Atlantic] story, while some current and former members of the Trump Administration have called parts of it false,” New Yorker writer John Cassidy wrote.
“The best way to resolve the controversy would be for John Kelly, the highly decorated military veteran who served as Trump’s chief of staff, from 2017 to 2019, to say publicly what he knows. He ought to do this without hesitation,” Mr. Cassidy wrote.
• Ryan Lovelace, Seth McLaughlin and Dave Boyer contributed to this report.