After The Atlantic reported on Thursday that Donald Trump had privately trashed American war dead as “suckers” and “losers,” the White House, the president’s 2020 campaign, and a broad array of Trump loyalists activated to aggressively denounce the report as fictitious and absurd.
In The Daily Beast’s interviews with 11 senior administration officials, Trump aides, Republican operatives, and former and current friends of the president, several of them mounted a curious defense of Trump. Yes, they admitted, the commander in chief at times makes callous, tone-deaf comments about American military personnel behind closed doors. But it’s because he hates the wars they’re forced to fight, not the service members themselves.
“The president means no disrespect to our troops; it’s just that the way he speaks, he can sound like an asshole sometimes,” one of these sources, a current senior administration official, told The Daily Beast. “That’s how he is [when the cameras are off]… It’s his style.”
Some of these sources defending President Trump and pushing back on The Atlantic’s story agreed to go on the record. Others would only speak on background and in an anonymous capacity—even after the White House trashed the magazine for relying on such nameless sources. (The president on Friday afternoon called the story a “hoax,” even though the Associated Press and Fox News had confirmed key details of the original piece.)
Some of these individuals close to the president did concede there was one part of Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg’s article that rang true to them: the anecdote about Trump joining John Kelly, his former White House chief of staff, on a visit to the grave of Kelly’s son Robert—who was killed in the war in Afghanistan—and coldly asking Kelly, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
Three people with direct knowledge of the president’s private remarks in the past three years about Robert Kelly, as well as other Americans who’ve died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that Trump had made similar-sounding comments to them, too. This included the president mentioning that their service in these war zones was a “waste,” or that U.S. military personnel in these conflicts had “died for nothing,” or that the fallen “should have been doing something else.”
However, these sources, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, all independently insisted that Trump was not disrespecting the U.S. war dead; he was merely stating a belief that they should not have been sent overseas to fight and die in these wars in the first place. Each said that the president often has a brash, ill-mannered way of talking that can obscure what they believe to be his intended message, especially in moments when Trump is trying to convey sympathy or empathy.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story by Friday evening.
For all of Trump’s talk about putting an end to these “endless wars,” he has yet to actually end any of them, and he even escalated the war in Afghanistan earlier in his first term. He has also actively encouraged and used the powers of his office to excuse American war crimes, and also escalated air wars on various foreign countries, with disastrous consequences for civilians abroad.
“I’ve been friends with Trump since 2005. Are there times he says things that people get upset with? Yes, but to those suggesting he is lacking empathy... I have seen first-hand on many occasions and have been personally touched by his compassion and empathy,” said Eric Bolling, a Sinclair anchor and a close friend of the Trump family.
During his first term in office, Trump has indeed managed to shambolically fumble his outreach to grieving families. In 2017, when the president spoke on the phone to the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who died in an operation in Niger, Trump reportedly said to her: “He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”
According to those present for her end of the phone conversation, this led that widow, Myeshia Johnson, to begin breaking out in tears. President Trump, refusing to accept any culpability for this, quickly pivoted to claiming the whole incident was an elaborate fabrication, and began bashing Democrats and the media instead.
“President Trump has always shown the highest level of respect and empathy for veterans, wounded warriors, and surviving family members who have lost relatives in combat,” Jason Miller, a top adviser on the Trump re-election campaign, told The Daily Beast on Friday, insisting that the Atlantic story was “false” and “complete nonsense.”
Asked about Trump’s well-known comments about the late senator John McCain being a “loser” and not a real war hero because he was “captured” and tortured during the Vietnam War, Miller echoed the president, replying, “The president has always shown the utmost respect for those defending our country, and simply because the president is willing to throw some tough elbows in the political arena doesn’t give The Atlantic permission to write a completely made-up, false story alleging the president is disrespectful to those who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Asked about Trump’s bitter feud with the Gold Star parents of the Khan family during the 2016 presidential race, Miller responded, “President Trump always has the right to defend himself in the political arena.”