Accused of denigrating military service, Trump's response falls short

Accused of denigrating military service and fallen heroes, Trump's response has had five key elements. Each of them is ridiculous.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump talks with reporters at Andrews Air Force Base after attending a campaign rally in Latrobe, Pa., on Sept. 3, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.Evan Vucci / AP
By Steve Benen

It's been five days since The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg published a staggering report on Donald Trump, his denigration of those who serve in the military, and his condemnation of fallen American heroes as "suckers" and "losers."

As the Washington Post's David Ignatius wrote, the resulting firestorm has exploded the "bad marriage" between the Republican president and American military leaders.

The quotes were anonymous, but it has been an open secret in Washington that many prominent retired four-stars have regarded Trump with growing horror as he assaulted the traditions of discipline and professionalism that are bedrocks of military life.... The military understand their role in a democracy. They have obeyed Trump as their commander in chief, even amid his tirades and insults. And they will continue to do so if he's reelected. But many of them won't like it: Trump just isn't a guy with whom you'd want to share a foxhole.

Part of what makes the political impact of the controversy so potent is the degree to which it fits into what's already been well documented. Trump has spent much of his term belittling American troops and mocking the military leaders of his own country. Complicating matters, the Republican's willingness to disparage military service predates his political career.

For his part, the president hasn't just furiously denied the accuracy of the reporting, he's also begun an offensive that includes several key -- but badly flawed -- components.

1. Pretend the reporting is fiction. Trump has said the reporting is "made up" and a "fake story." That's extremely unlikely: not only is Goldberg's reporting reliable, and not only does the reporting comport with what we know, but much of The Atlantic piece has been corroborated by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and even Fox News. Are we to believe five major news organizations manufactured a fictional tale as part of an elaborate conspiracy? It's a tough sell.

2. Attack freedom of the press. Trump told reporters on Friday, "It's a disgrace that somebody is allowed to write things like that." Of course, in the United States, at least for now, journalists are "allowed" to publish reports the president doesn't like.

Similarly, on Twitter, the president called for Fox News to fire its Pentagon correspondent. This brazen example of "cancel culture" is extraordinary: American presidents don't generally call for the ouster of journalists whose reporting upsets the White House.

3. Target suspected sources. Trump doesn't know who served as the sources for last week's reporting, but he clearly suspects former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. The president told reporters late last week that Kelly, a retired four-star general, "didn't do a good job," "had no temperament," "wasn't even able to function," "and "was unable to handle the pressure of this job."

Of course, even if each of these attacks were true -- and there's ample reason for skepticism -- it doesn't mean that Kelly, if he did serve as a source for journalists, was wrong about what he heard Trump say behind the scenes about veterans and military service.

4. Target perceived media foes. It was bizarre to see a sitting American president deliberately encourage allies to harass a private citizen, but on Sunday, Trump called on his followers to go after Laurene Powell Jobs, a co-owner of The Atlantic, because the magazine published a report he didn't like. "Call her, write her, let her know how you feel!!!" the Republican wrote on Twitter.

If he weren't ostensibly the Leader of the Free World, isn't this the sort of misconduct that would get someone suspended from the social-media site?

5. Assert that the reporting simply could not be true. Reflecting on the quotes attributed to him, Trump said at a Labor Day press conference, "Who would say a thing like that? Only an animal would say things like that." In other words, the public is supposed to believe the president is simply too good a person to disparage those who wear the uniform, despite his years of public disparagements against those who wear the uniform.

The quote reminded me of Trump's presidential campaign, when he denied mocking Serge Kovaleski's physical disability. "I would definitely not say anything about his appearance," Trump said shortly after publicly deriding arthrogryposis.

In effect, Trump was saying then, as he's saying now, that even he wouldn't stoop to something so low. The trouble, however, is that Trump really did ridicule Kovaleski's disability, and given the weight of the evidence, it's painfully easy to believe he disparaged American heroes who served in the military.