Why it's easy to believe Trump privately denigrated military service

Trump is denying a stunning report about his ugly habit of denigrating and disrespecting military service. The report, however, is very easy to believe.
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President Donald Trump walks the tarmac after stepping off Air Force One as he arrives for a campaign event at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on Sept. 3, 2020Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images
By Steve Benen

In late 2018, Donald Trump was in France for events marking the 100th anniversary of World War I, and he was supposed to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris. It was, to a certain degree, the whole point of the president’s trip. Trump, however, didn't go, blaming the weather and the Secret Service.

The explanation wasn't true. In a stunning piece in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg reported on what actually happened.

Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

As part of the same trip, the Republican asked aides asked who "the good guys" were in World War I and said he didn’t understand why the United States would intervene on the side of the Allies.

Goldberg's piece is well worth your time -- it's genuinely important -- because of its broader look at Donald Trump's denigration of military service in general.

Trump’s understanding of heroism has not evolved since he became president. According to sources with knowledge of the president’s views, he seems to genuinely not understand why Americans treat former prisoners of war with respect.... Trump finds the notion of military service difficult to understand, and the idea of volunteering to serve especially incomprehensible.

The well-reported, well-sourced anecdotes from the article are too numerous to reference here, but they include quotes from multiple people with direct knowledge of the president's views, who heard Trump denigrate the military service of John McCain, George H. W. Bush, and others.

It also notes that retired four-star Gen. John Kelly, Trump's former White House chief of staff, eventually came to realize that the president "simply does not understand non-transactional life choices." Goldberg quoted a source close to Kelly saying Trump "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.”

The Atlantic editor added, "The president believes that nothing is worth doing without the promise of monetary payback, and that talented people who don’t pursue riches are 'losers.' ... His capacious definition of sucker includes those who lose their lives in service to their country, as well as those who are taken prisoner, or are wounded in battle."

This has led Trump to, among other things, express a degree of disgust for those injured during their service. The article referenced a White House planning meeting for a military parade at which the president asked aides not to include wounded veterans, on grounds that spectators would feel uncomfortable in the presence of amputees. Trump was quoted saying, “Nobody wants to see that."

The president and his White House team have strenuously denied the accuracy of the report. And while the public will obviously reach its own conclusions about the veracity of the reporting, it's worth emphasizing how very easy it is to believe Goldberg's piece.

For example, it's already been corroborated by other journalists. The Associated Press' Jim LaPorta, whom Rachel spoke with on the show last night, confirmed The Atlantic article in its entirety. Likewise, the Washington Post reported overnight:

A former senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, confirmed to The Washington Post that the president frequently made disparaging comments about veterans and soldiers missing in action, referring to them at times as “losers.” In one account, the president told senior advisers that he didn’t understand why the U.S. government placed such value on finding soldiers missing in action because they had performed poorly and gotten caught and deserved what they got, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

We also know from Trump family members that the president threatened to disown one of his own sons if he enlisted in the military, and in a separate account, Trump included a provision in a prenuptial agreement that payments to one of his wives would cease if one of his daughters enlisted in the military.

Americans have also heard Trump disparage American servicemen and women who are captured during combat, while launching an ugly feud with a Gold Star family.

We've also seen the president insult Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's service -- putting his military rank in scare quotes, as if Vindman hadn't earned it -- blame military leaders for failed missions he approved, and deride the former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command for the speed with which the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden was carried out.

Trump has also reportedly lashed out at generals privately as "a bunch of dopes and babies," while publicly going on the offensive against his own former Defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis -- whom he accused of acting like a "Democrat" for questioning the White House's less-defensible national security moves.

More recently, Trump downplayed the importance of troops with traumatic brain injuries, which prompted a request for an apology from the Veterans of Foreign Wars -- an appeal the president ignored.

Part of the problem is the Republican's unfortunate past in this area, and the eagerness with which the president has suggested that he's something akin to a great American warrior. As a candidate, Trump liked to say he “felt” like he’d served in the military because his parents sent him to a military-themed boarding school as a teenager. He went so far as to boast that his expensive prep school gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military.”

It's probably worth emphasizing that Trump, who pointed to "bone spurs" to dodge the draft, isn't required to respect military service. If he wants to disparage those who wear the uniform or denigrate their sacrifices, I find it bizarre, but that's his business. It's a free country -- so free that he can take cheap shots at war heroes if he wants to. In the United States, even a president can insult servicemembers, veterans, and their families.

But this speaks to an inconvenient aspect of Trump's vision. As we've discussed before, it’s apparently never occurred to him to appreciate the distinction between superficial support for the military and genuine respect for those in uniform and the commitment behind their service. Asked if he supports the military, Trump is quick to point to symbols and gestures: he has military flags in the Oval Office, for example, and his interest in military parades is borderline creepy.

But there’s no depth of thought or seriousness of purpose. It's what leads Trump to celebrate those accused of war crimes, while ridiculing those who serve honorably.

As Richard Spencer, Trump's own former Navy secretary -- who endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate over his former boss -- explained late last year, the president “has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”

It's worth keeping this in mind as Trump and his allies deny the accuracy of a report that seems painfully easy to believe.