He later defended himself in a White House press briefing, where he called the story a “hoax” and a “continuation of the witch hunt.”
Trump’s latest repudiation of The Atlantic’s report came hours after top Biden surrogates denounced the president in a press call — seizing upon a potential inflection point in a general election campaign that in recent days has left the Democratic nominee reiterating his opposition to violence at protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
On Friday, however, it was Trump who found himself playing defense, having to explain his support for the military less than two months from an election in which he will rely on a political base of voters made up of a disproportionately high percentage of veterans.
“There’s nobody that considers the military, and especially people that have given their lives in the military — to me, they’re heroes. To me, they’re heroes,” Trump said. “It’s even hard to believe how they could do it.”
Biden and his campaign quickly pounced. The former vice president, who had been scheduled to deliver a speech on the economy in Delaware on Friday afternoon, instead spent much of the event rebuking Trump.
“I’ve just never been as disappointed in my whole career with a leader that I’ve worked with, president or otherwise,” Biden said. “If the article is true, and it appears to be based on the things he said, it is absolutely damnable. It is a disgrace.”
The president’s reelection team had rushed Thursday night to respond to The Atlantic’s report, which alleged that Trump canceled a planned 2018 visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris because the rainy weather would dishevel his hair and the burial ground was “filled with losers.”
The Trump campaign pointed to a redacted email from the White House which it claimed showed the scuttled cemetery trip was the result of a “bad weather call,” while a cast of current and former administration officials who accompanied the president to Paris tweeted their own denials.
White House deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino deemed the report a “disgraceful attempt to smear POTUS,” former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “total BS,” and Trump campaign spokesperson Hogan Gidley said the story was filled with “disgusting, grotesque, reprehensible lies.”
Amid fresh fallout Friday morning, the administration’s most high-ranking officials took to cable news to issue their own defenses of Trump.
“I wasn’t in Paris, but it never happened,” Vice President Mike Pence told CNBC, insisting that the “American people just roll their eyes at these late-hit, anonymous-source media coming from The Atlantic or anywhere else. It’s just politics as usual.”
“I’ve never heard the president use the language that assertedly is said in that article, about him calling military suckers and losers,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News. “I’ve never seen that. Indeed, just the contrary. He’s always had the deepest respect.”
Trump’s top aides in the West Wing also weighed in at a White House news conference. National security adviser Robert O’Brien said The Atlantic’s report was a “sad article for any magazine to have published,” and senior adviser Jared Kushner decried “unnamed sources” referenced by the media.
“That does not represent the way that I’ve seen the president conduct himself. He has tremendous respect for the military, for our veterans,” Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, told reporters.
“You have to look at his actions,” he added. “And I think his actions have been incredible towards supporting the military, strengthening the military and strengthening our veterans.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany then accused The Atlantic of “abandon[ing] all journalistic integrity,” charging that the magazine’s “liberal activists” are “uninterested in the truth and … only interested in pedaling conspiracy-laden propaganda.”
Perhaps the most consequential show of support came from the Pentagon on Friday afternoon, when Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the president “has the highest respect and admiration for our nation’s military members, veterans and families. That is why he has fought for greater pay and more funding for our armed forces.”
In a sign of Trump’s recognition of the damage inflicted by The Atlantic’s report, he later tweeted that he would reverse an order by the Defense Department to cease publication of the military’s independent newspaper, Stars and Stripes.
“The United States of America will NOT be cutting funding to @starsandstripes magazine under my watch,” he wrote. “It will continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!”
Trump defended himself again in a news conference at the White House later Friday, at one point slamming his former chief of staff and retired Marine Corps general John Kelly and implying Kelly could have been a source for The Atlantic before walking that suggestion back.
Trump said Kelly, who witnessed at least one of the accounts reported by The Atlantic, “got eaten up” in the world of politics. Asked about Kelly’s silence on the firestorm surrounding Trump’s reported comments, Trump responded that the decorated general and former commander of U.S. Southern Command “did not do a good job, had no temperament” and “wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months,” leading Trump to demand Kelly’s resignation.
“Now, he goes out and badmouths — now, there are people that are jealous. There are people that are upset that they are not here anymore,” Trump said, before later conceding: “But I don’t know that it was him. I haven’t seen that. I mean I see anonymous, but it could have been a guy like a John Kelly.”
The president denounced the story as a “hoax” designed to damage his reelection chances. He complained the magazine never reached out to him for comment on its allegations, though The Atlantic wrote that the White House did not return multiple requests for comment until after publication. Trump also lamented about the high standards a plaintiff must meet to win a libel lawsuit.
Trump then pivoted to an attack on the press’s treatment of Biden, complaining that reporters at the former vice president’s news conference earlier had “asked questions that are really meant for a child to answer.”
Meanwhile, a multitude of Democrats said they were incensed — including Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient, who told reporters during the Biden campaign call that she was “appalled” by The Atlantic’s report.
“This is a man who spends every day redefining the concept of narcissism. A man who’s met a life of privilege, with everything handed to him on a silver platter,” said Duckworth, who lost both legs when the Blackhawk helicopter she was co-piloting was shot by Iraqi insurgents in 2004.
“Of course he thinks about war selfishly,” she said. “He thinks of it as a transactional cost instead of in human lives and American blood spilled, because that’s how he’s viewed his whole life. He doesn’t understand other people’s bravery and courage because he’s never had any of his own.”
The Atlantic’s account was subsequently corroborated in part by news outlets including The Associated Press, The Washington Post and Fox News, which reported other explosive allegations about the president’s perception of the nation’s military.
For example, Trump was mystified as to why the U.S. government placed value on finding soldiers who were missing in action because he believed “they had performed poorly and gotten caught and deserved what they got,” according to the Post.
Duckworth homed in on a different detail from The Atlantic’s report: the president’s request during a 2018 White House planning meeting for a military parade that the celebratory event not include wounded veterans such as amputees. “Nobody wants to see that,” Trump allegedly said.
Duckworth insisted that Trump’s remarks do not “diminish the sacrifices of wounded soldiers who gave up their limbs, like I did, for all Americans — including him.”
“I’d take my wheelchair and my titanium legs over Donald Trump’s supposed bone spurs any day,” she said, referring to the medical exemption that granted Trump a deferment from being drafted into military service during the Vietnam War.
Also featured on the Biden campaign call was Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004 and who has feuded with Trump since addressing the Democratic National Convention in 2016. On Friday, however, he leveled what appeared to be his most forceful and personal condemnation of the president yet.
“Words matter. The words we say are a window into our souls — of how we see the world and our place in it,” Khan said. “When Donald Trump calls anyone who places their life in service of others a ‘loser,’ we understand Trump’s soul.”
Khan went on to describe Trump’s life as a “testament to selfishness,” contending that the president is “incapable of understanding service, valor and courage. His soul cannot conceive of integrity and honor. And let me say very loudly and clearly so America can listen: His soul is that of a coward.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb, a Marine veteran and the final Biden surrogate to participate in Friday’s press call, was more reluctant to discuss Trump’s reported remarks, instead explaining the historical and symbolic significance of the Battle of Belleau Wood to the U.S. Marine Corps.
Many of the Marines killed in that battle are buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, which Trump declined to visit, and the three-week World War I conflict is widely regarded as “if not the most, certainly one of the most important battles in Marine Corps history,” according to Lamb.
“That battle and that burial ground deserve the utmost respect and veneration to any American,” Lamb said, but “for a president to pass up the opportunity to pay his respect at that site, it’s just a tragedy regardless of what was said or wasn’t said.”
Several of Lamb’s fellow House Democrats who also served in the military similarly criticized Trump in a conference call with reporters on Friday. The group of lawmakers included Reps. Gil Cisneros and Ted Lieu of California, Jason Crow of Colorado, Elaine Luria of Virginia and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey.
“I was incredibly proud to serve our country. I didn’t do it because I was stupid or a sucker. I did it because I love this country,” Sherrill said, adding: “I don’t think he’s fit to be the president of the United States.”
Caitlin Oprysko and Matthew Choi contributed to this report.