"It Was A Hoax," "I Say What I Say": Trump Attacks Press For Asking About Military Insults

In a combative briefing, Trump berated the press, called the Atlantic report “a hoax,” and defended demeaning comments he’s previously made about the late Sen. John McCain.

President Donald Trump talks to reporters on September 4, 2020, denying claims he called fallen soldiers "losers." | Getty Images
President Donald Trump talks to reporters on September 4, 2020, denying claims he called fallen soldiers "losers." | Getty Images

President Trump went on the defensive Friday afternoon after facing a day's worth of fierce criticism for a report in The Atlantic that claimed he called fallen soldiers "suckers" and "losers."

In a combative press conference, Trump insulted The Atlantic (calling it “a second-rate magazine” and then “a third-rate magazine”) as well as the reporters in the room. He also called the story a “hoax” and refused to apologize for any previous comments he’s made on the record that demeaned veterans.

In fact, when asked about his infamous attacks on the late Sen. John McCain—whom he called a “loser” on camera, the same language sources in The Atlantic story say he used for fallen soldiers in France—Trump said Friday, “Look, I say what I say. I never got along with John McCain…I wasn’t a fan. I think time has proven me right, to a large extent.”

McCain’s widow, Cindy, tweeted a photo on Friday after the report came out of her husband and “four generations who have served and are serving.”

“Duty, Honor, Country,” the tweet said.

Trump called The Atlantic story, and the subsequent questioning about it,  “a disgrace” and said the press “ought to be ashamed of [themselves]” for asking about it at all. He also claimed “they just write whatever they want to write because they figure you can’t get sued,” saying “nobody called me from the magazine.” But Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote the piece and said he did call the White House—and that his calls were not returned. After the article was published Thursday evening, a White House spokesperson emailed Goldberg with a response, which was then included in the piece. The statement defended Trump as holding the military in the “highest regard,” adding, “This [report] has no basis in fact.”

Another one of Trump’s own Friday night rebuttals was that he has “11 people” who would deny he made those comments, despite The Atlantic, the AP, and even a Fox News reporter confirming them with multiple high-level sources.

Trump also attempted to defend himself by saying: “I’ve been under investigation from before I even got elected.” (He has been, for several legitimate reasons.)

The president claimed the story is a “hoax, just like Russia, Russia, Russia was a hoax,” speaking of the years-long investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign and its ties to Russia-sponsored interference in the election. Trump claimed Friday that he’s been “tougher on Russia than anybody else,” but continues to say reports of Russia offering cash bounties for the killing of U.S. troops in Afghanistan—first reported more than two months ago—is also a “hoax.” He has not offered any other comments on that story, despite some lawmakers calling on him to criticize Russia over it, if not take action.

Democratic presidential nominee and former VP Joe Biden responded to Trump’s alleged comments during his own press conference Friday, calling out the president’s “disregard for our military and our veterans.” Biden referenced his late son Beau Biden, who served in the military from 2002 up until his death from brain cancer in 2015. He was 46.

According to The Atlantic's Thursday night report, Trump cancelled a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery outside of Paris in 2018 after saying to a senior staff member: “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.”

The cemetery contains the graves of soldiers who died in the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918 during World War I. It also has memorials for those deemed missing in action. 

During his Friday evening briefing, Trump blamed the weather as the reason he didn’t go to the cemetery, saying there was a storm “the likes of which you’ve never seen.” That excuse was also the reason aides reported for the cancellation at the time in 2018. However, the weather did not prevent Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron from visiting other sites around Paris at the time.

The Goldberg report said: "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."

The Atlantic’s sources also claimed that in a separate conversation, Trump called the Marines who died at the battle “suckers.” 

During a separate press briefing earlier on Friday from the Oval Office, Trump said the story was “totally fake,” and called The Atlantic a “magazine that is probably not gonna be around much longer.” Editor-in-chief Goldberg has stood by the reporting, which is attributed to at least four different sources, all of whom are so far anonymous (he also tweeted that the magazine is “doing quite well.”)

The article ends with a description of a 2018 White House planning meeting for a military parade, in which Trump reportedly “asked his staff not to include wounded veterans” because “spectators would feel uncomfortable in the presence of amputees.”

“Nobody wants to see that,” Trump said, according to The Atlantic. The AP has since confirmed many of the statements, along with Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin who spoke with two former senior officials from the Trump administration. According to Griffin's sources, when asked to confirm his comments on soldiers, they responded, Trump "would say things like that."

“Quite frankly, if what is written in the Atlantic is true, it’s disgusting,” Biden said Friday. “When my son volunteered and joined the United States Military as the attorney general, and went to Iraq for a year... he wasn’t a 'sucker.'” 

Biden continued: “The servicemen and women he served with, particularly those that did not come home, were not losers. If these statements are true, the president should humbly apologize.”

The Bidens have long focused on veterans initiatives throughout their time in the White House and afterward. In a 2018 interview with NowThis, the former vice president and Dr. Jill Biden talked about raising awareness for the mental health of veterans. They joined part of “Walking With The Wounded,” walking along with six American and British veterans who were trekking 1,000 miles across the U.S. to tell the stories of their injuries and recovery.

Several veterans and organizations responded to the report of Trump’s comments about soldiers who died in battle, including South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D) and the nonprofit Vote Vets.

"This president seems incapable of grasping what it means to sacrifice," said Buttigieg, who served in Afghanistan while in the U.S. Navy Reserve. "This is a pattern of behavior that goes all the way back to when it was his turn to serve and he got out of it." 

The hashtag #VeteransAgainstTrump was trending Friday with several people condemning the president's words. 

Also on Friday, news also broke that the The Pentagon was ordered to shut down a long-standing military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Politico reported that the more than 150-year-old independent publication is to be shut down by September 30. 

Members of Congress have been resistant to the order, calling on the Trump administration to rethink pulling funding for the historic publication. Fifteen Democratic and Republican Senators signed a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper urging him to reconsider rescinding the funding to the military newspaper. 

“Stars and Stripes is an essential part of our nation's freedom of the press that serves the very population charged with defending that freedom,” the letter writes, according to Military.com. 

A poll this week by The Military Times showed Biden currently leads Trump in support among active-duty troops by 4 points, 41.3% to 37.4%—notable because the military has long given majority support to Republicans. 

Trump’s long history of remarks and actions against veterans

Despite Trump’s assertion Friday that the quotes were false and that he has “done more for the military than almost anybody else,” Trump has a longstanding history of defamatory remarks against veterans. 

Most notably, the president has targeted the late Sen. John McCain in the past, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Trump said in 2015 that he wasn’t a war hero and added: “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

On Friday, Trump said he “never called John a loser,” in a Twitter thread about the senator who died in 2018. He did in 2015 at a campaign rally and at the time of his death, Trump reportedly told staffers, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.”