As published by Defense One by Katie Bo Williams
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden moved quickly on Friday to capitalize on bombshell allegations that President Donald Trump called American service-members who died in combat “losers” and “suckers,” releasing a campaign ad featuring Trump’s remarks juxtaposed over the white crosses in Aisne-Marne American Military Cemetery in France.
“Mr. President, if you don’t respect our troops, you can’t lead them,” Biden saidin a tweet releasing the ad.
Trump’s remarks — first reported by The Atlantic and confirmed in part by the Washington Post and the Associated Press — have given Biden a tailor-made opportunity to lean into an existing strategy of painting Trump as unsupportive of U.S. troops. In a speech on Monday, Biden hammered Trump for failing to address Russian bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan with Moscow, arguing that “not even American troops can feel safer under Trump.”
Trump has a track record of blunt remarks seen by detractors as unacceptably disrespectful towards American troops. As a presidential candidate in 2015, Trump attacked decorated veteran Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, who was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, saying that “I like people who weren’t captured.” Critics note that Trump avoided service in Vietnam by obtaining four student deferments and one medical disqualification — the latter due to a diagnosis of bone spurs that his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has testified was falsified.
In 2016, eleven Gold Star families wrote a letter to Trump accusing him of “cheapening the sacrifice” of their deceased relatives by criticizing the parents of Captain Humayun S.M. Khan for speaking out against him at the Democratic National Convention. Khan died in Iraq in 2004.
Trump’s alleged remarks reported in The Atlantic echoed his war of words against McCain. According to “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion,” Trump in 2018 canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery because “it’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation, Trump said that the more than 1,800 Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Woods were “suckers” for getting killed.
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Trump and several senior officials have flatly denied the allegations. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien at a press conference on Friday sought to paint moving portraits of Trump “send[ing] me to Dover” to meet the returning bodies of fallen U.S. service members and interacting with wounded troops at Walter Reed military hospital in Maryland.
Trump tweeted that he “swear[s] 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!”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s response to the allegations was more muted, defending Trump without directly addressing the allegations.
“President Trump has the highest respect and admiration for our nation’s military members, veterans and families,” Esper said in a statement. “That is why he has fought for greater pay and more funding for our armed forces.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed that he has the support of the U.S. military because he has engineered funding increases for the Pentagon, and specifically pay raises for U.S. troops. He has made repeated false claims that he gave troops their first pay raise in 10 years. Troops have received a pay raise every year for decades, and several in the last decade have been larger than service members are getting under Trump — 2.6 percent in 2019 compared to raises from 2008 to 2010 that were all 3.4 percent or more, according to a fact check by the Associated Press.
But Biden’s focus on Trump’s support for troops comes at a moment when support for the sitting U.S. president among U.S. service members appears to be sharply declining. The latest Military Times poll, released this week, shows a steady drop in support for Trump since his election four years ago. At this point in the 2016 campaign, Trump led then-candidate Hillary Clinton by 20 points. Now, Biden holds a four-point edge over Trump among active-duty troops — and that poll was released before The Atlantic story became public.
“I do not know what was or wasn’t said. I do know that our military cemeteries at home or abroad are hallowed ground and always will be,” Mick Mulroy, a retired U.S. Marine and ABC News security analyst who is a godfather to four Gold Star daughters. “No person that would call our fallen service men and women losers or be embarrassed by our wounded veterans should ever hold any elected office let alone be the President of the United States. “
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The revelations about Trump’s remarks coincided with reports that the president had ordered the shuttering of the military’s independent newspaper Stars and Stripes, which publishes a print paper about U.S. troops on military bases all over the world. Democrats were quick to call for the decision to be reversed.
“Not even a day after multiple sources confirm Trump disparaged U.S. service members, his admin is trying to shut down @starsandstripes, a news outlet for active duty forces and veterans that’s existed since the 1800s,” tweeted Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who sits on the Armed Services Committee.
At 3:42 p.m. on Friday, Trump appeared to reverse course on Stripes, tweeting. “The United States of America will NOT be cutting funding to @starsandstripes magazine under my watch. It will continue to be a wonderful source of information to our Great Military!”