Letters From an American

Trump and the Troops

Trump and the Troops

September 3, 2020

Tonight, The Atlantic published a story by Jeffrey Goldberg detailing Trump’s contempt for military service and the self-sacrifice of those killed in the line of duty. According to the story, sourced by interviews with military leaders and people close to Trump, “the president has repeatedly disparaged the intelligence of service members, and,” in 2018, asked that wounded veterans be kept out of a military parade “on grounds that spectators would feel uncomfortable in the presence of amputees. ‘Nobody wants to see that,’ he said.”

Goldberg details Trump’s fixation on the late Arizona Senator John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese after his plane was shot down in 1967, recounting the times in which Trump referred to McCain as a “loser,” which were captured both in tweets and in recordings. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said of McCain in 2015. “I like people who weren’t captured.” Trump received five deferments from service in Vietnam because a doctor stated he suffered from bone spurs in his feet. In 2016, Trump’s campaign said the medical issue was temporary.

Goldberg writes that Trump “finds the notion of military service difficult to understand, and the idea of volunteering to serve especially incomprehensible.” He referred to those soldiers killed at Belleau Wood, where US soldiers and their allies stopped the German advance toward Paris in 1918 during World War I, as “suckers” and “losers.”

In 2017, on Memorial Day, Trump and then-director of Homeland Security John Kelly (he would soon be named White House Chief of Staff) visited Arlington National Cemetery together. They went to the section of the cemetery where Kelly’s son Robert, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, lies buried. Trump turned to Kelly and said: “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

One of Kelly’s friends, a retired four-star general, told Goldberg: “He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself…. He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.” Further, he said, Trump “can’t imagine anyone else’s pain. That’s why he would say this to the father of a fallen marine on Memorial Day in the cemetery where he’s buried.”

This story is short, well-written, and such a bombshell that the White House pushed back immediately. Shortly after The Atlantic posted the story, White House spokesperson Alyssa Farah emailed Goldberg a statement saying: “This report is false. President Trump holds the military in the highest regard. He’s demonstrated his commitment to them at every turn: delivering on his promise to give our troops a much needed pay raise, increasing military spending, signing critical veterans reforms, and supporting military spouses. This has no basis in fact.” (Trump frequently boasts that he gave members of the military their first pay raise in 10 years. This is untrue: military members have gotten a pay raise every year since 1961.)

Speaking to reporters after a campaign trip to Pennsylvania, Trump said the article was a “disgrace” and the people who spoke to Goldberg “lowlifes.” “I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes,” he said. “There is nobody that respects them more. So, I just think it’s a horrible, horrible thing.”

Later, Trump tweeted of his respect for McCain. “I never called… John a loser,” —it is both on tape and on Twitter that he did— “and swear on whatever, or whoever, I was asked to swear on, that I never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES. This is more made up Fake News given by disgusting & jealous failures in a disgraceful attempt to influence the 2020 Election!”

Trump is reacting with such panic because this is indeed a story that will draw attention before the election. Americans care about respect for our troops. Other media outlets picked up the story almost instantly. It is spreading far and wide.

Trump’s contempt for the troops and inability to recognize their sacrifice, outlined in Goldberg’s story, almost exactly echoes one of Trump’s very first actions as president and commander in chief. On January 21, 2017, Trump went to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency and spoke in front of the Wall of Heroes, stars carved into marble, one for each of the 117 CIA agents who have died serving America. Two of those stars are for Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both former Navy SEALs killed in the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

In front of that wall, considered hallowed ground by CIA employees, to an audience of hand-picked attendees, Trump launched one of his now-trademark speeches. He complained about the unfair media, lashed out at his critics, and boasted about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Former CIA Director John Brennan called that speech, in that location, “despicable.”

But that story faded quickly. Three and a half years ago, we did not yet know what it meant to be ruled by a man who does not understand the concept of, as Kelly’s friend put it, “doing something for someone other than himself… when there’s no direct personal gain to be had.” Now we do.

While the story from January 2017 did not last, this one seems to be catching fire.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.