Democratic nominee Joe Biden moved urgently to seize on President Donald Trump’s reported comments that dead service members are “losers,” deeming the “disgusting” utterance by his chief political opponent as disqualifying.
The morning after The Atlantic published a string of stunning comments reportedly made by the commander-in-chief, Biden’s allies convened a call to recognize members of the military. The strategy represented a fuller and faster form of engagement from a campaign that, as a matter of principle, doesn’t respond to every Trump remark.
“Quite frankly, if what is written in The Atlantic is true, it is disgusting,” Biden said during a speech in Wilmington, Delaware on Friday afternoon. “It affirms what most of us believe to be true, that Donald Trump is not fit to be the commander-in-chief.”
Then he appeared more upset, saying it was the closest he’d come to losing his temper during the campaign.
“When my son volunteered and joined the United States military as the attorney general and went to Iraq for a year, won the bronze star and other commendations, he wasn’t a sucker,” the former vice president continued.
“The servicemen and women he served with, particularly those who did not come home, were not ‘losers.’ If these statements are true, the president should humbly apologize to every gold star mother and father and every blue star family that he has denigrated and insulted,” he said. “Who the heck does he think he is?”
The story has taken hold, in part, because it tracks with Trump’s past conduct. The president has likened his attempts to avoid sexually transmitted diseases as his “personal Vietnam,” proudly remarked that he likes “people who weren’t captured” when attempting to denigrate the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and made the grieving widow of a soldier “cry even worse” after he called her.
Biden’s endorsers sought to remind reporters of his behavior earlier on Friday morning.
“I am not shocked to hear yet more instances of Donald Trump belittling the sacrifices of those who have shown more bravery than he is capable of,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a former lieutenant colonel in the Army, said during an on-the-record briefing. “I’m not shocked, but I am appalled.”
Duckworth, who underwent two leg amputations after sustaining injuries in combat during the Iraq War, has been fiercely critical of Trump’s “downright contemptuous” attitude, she said, towards those who have sacrificed. “Of course he thinks about war selfishly. He thinks about it as a transactional cause.”
In the report by The Atlantic’s top editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, on Thursday night, Trump reportedly ridiculed soldiers who died as “losers” ahead of what was supposed to be an official trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France in 2018, before he canceled it.
“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” Trump said, according to The Atlantic. “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,” the story noted.
Khizr Khan, a gold star parent whose son was killed in Iraq, delivered a vehement denunciation of the president’s reported comments, while re-pledging his support for Biden.
“When Donald Trump calls anyone who places their life in service of others a ‘loser,’ we understand Trump’s soul,” Khan said. “By his accounting, self sacrifice does not make sense. Love does not make sense. According to Trump, the winners in life are those that put themselves before all. And losers are those that don’t. What kind of soul this man has. No wonder his words are meant to divide, sow hatred, degenerate those who sacrifice themselves for us.”
“His life is a testament to selfishness,” he added.
The Atlantic’s story also detailed a moment, based on “sources with knowledge of this visit,” where the president asked a shocking question to his former Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly while at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day three years ago.
“The two men were set to visit Section 60,” the story explained, where “Kelly’s son Robert is buried” after he “was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan” at 29 years old.
“Trump was meant, on this visit, to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members. But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’” the story reported.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), a former Marine representing Biden’s native Pennsylvania, turned on the call to the November presidential election, saying he didn’t “want to waste any more breath on acknowledging the things that this person has said or not said,” but rather looking at “the alternative coming” soon.
Lamb, another early Biden backer, detailed parts of the former vice president’s record of supporting troops, while sharing concerns brought to him in the House by veterans suffering from the physical aftermath of past wars.
“There has not been a moment of sympathy or understanding from this president for these Vietnam veterans he claims to honor,” Lamb said. “These veterans, when they come and they tell us in Congress what it’s like to be waiting on these benefits, to have the reality and the suffering that they’re living through denied by this administration, they have asked us if the president is simply waiting for them to die.”
The same evening The Atlantic’s story published, Biden released a statement contending that the “revelations” tarnish the country’s one “truly sacred obligation,” which, he said, is “to prepare and equip those we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families, both while they are deployed and after they return home.”
“They are yet another marker of how deeply President Trump and I disagree about the role of the President of the United States,” Biden wrote.
Andrew Bates, a campaign spokesperson, told The Daily Beast that “Donald Trump has made gaslighting his hallmark” and that “fact checkers have caught him telling over 20,000 lies to the American people while in office alone.”
“How does that stack up next to the word of senior Marine Corps officers, DoD officials, and four other people with direct knowledge of these statements? Not well,” he added.
Trump, for his part, has claimed the whole story is wrong, calling it “more made up Fake News given by disgusting & jealous failures in a disgraceful attempt to influence the 2020 Election!” He added that he’d never called McCain, a prisoner of war, “a loser and swear on whatever, or whoever, I was asked to swear on, that I never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES.”
By Friday morning, he was still fuming. “The Atlantic Magazine is dying, like most magazines, so they make up a fake story in order to gain some relevance. Story already refuted, but this is what we are up against. Just like the Fake Dossier. You fight and and fight, and then people realize it was a total fraud!,” he wrote.
Trump’s comments came as some urged the anonymous sources quoted by The Atlantic to reveal themselves. Asked by The Daily Beast if having a name attached to the allegations would help persuade voters to take them seriously, Duckworth said not necessarily.
“We see what Donald Trump does to people who speak up to him,” the senator said. “I think the American people certainly believe these stories. They have been independently verified by multiple news organizations, the AP and the Washington Post, in addition to The Atlantic.”
“If these folks want to come forward and identify themselves that’s fine, but if they choose not to they are protected under how we deal with anonymous sources and they are protected by the First Amendment,” Duckworth said. “I don’t think it’s important that they come out and identify themselves because I think Americans know what is truly in Donald Trump’s heart and that is only Donald Trump's wellbeing.”