Trump himself joined in, telling reporters that “it could have been a guy like” his former chief of staff, John Kelly, even as the White House spent much of the day attacking The Atlantic and insisting that its story was false. As if to forestall the damage should someone like Kelly go public, Trump took the opportunity to also disparage his former employee, a retired four star general. “He was unable to handle the pressure of this job,” Trump said.
The most explosive claim in the piece is that Trump called fallen soldiers “suckers” and “losers,” something that he denies. But the question is whether the story is just another fleeting flareup of the Trump years, or something more lasting.
What seemed to give the story more credence was that that Associated Press and The Washington Post followed with details matching some of those in The Atlantic piece by Thursday evening, while on Friday, Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin went on during the 3 PM ET hour on Friday to report that she had also confirmed key details in the piece as well.
“My source, a former Trump administration official, told me when the president spoke about the Vietnam war, he said it was a stupid war,” she reported. “Anyone who went was a sucker. The president would say about veterans, ‘What’s in it for them? They don’t make any money. The source said it was a character flaw of the president. He could not understand why someone would die for their country. Not worth it.”
Some commentators on Fox News tried to dismiss the report, even after Griffin’s reporting, while White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany, at a briefing, told reporters that “activists at The Atlantic aren’t interested in the truth and they are only interested in conspiracy laden propaganda. Here is the one truth: No one, and I mean no one, loves and cares as much for our service men and women as much as President Donald J. Trump.” She then left the room without taking questions.
The author of the piece, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic, stood by the story, while Joe Biden angrily lashed out at Trump. At a press appearance, Biden at first said that the president should apologize if the story turned out to be true, but later he told reporters that he believed The Atlantic piece, based on what Trump had said before.
The story once again raises concerns about sourcing, particularly one that is so impactful at the start of the fall presidential campaign. Other outlets confirmed substantial portions of the piece, but that obviously is not as powerful as former administration figures revealing their identities. Anonymous sources are the lifeblood of reporting in D.C., in Hollywood, in just about any industry, but they also are misunderstood. White House reporters have tried to counter a perception among a portion of the public that the sources aren’t even known to the journalists doing the stories, as if they just take anonymous tips and run with them.
Trump has tried to fuel distrust by claiming the sources are just made up, even as the White House routinely relies on spreading its own unattributed information. He also continued to attack reporters into late Friday, calling on Fox News to fire Griffin, while her colleagues at and outside the network, including Bret Baier and The New York Times Maggie Haberman, vouched for her work.
The true impact of The Atlantic piece may not be what was said anonymously, but as a reminder of what Trump has said on the record. More specifically, it’s what he said about John McCain.
In 2015, about a month in his presidential campaign, Trump said of the Arizona senator who was a POW in Vietnam, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Trump never really apologized for the comment, and did not do so again on Friday. “I say what I say. And I never got along with John McCain,” he said.
Trump didn’t pay a price for the comment five years ago; will he do so now?
On MSNBC’s MTP Daily, Kelly O’Donnell told Chuck Todd that she believed that “in what is a chaotic and lengthy campaign, this day will be one of those markers in telling the narrative of this campaign, both for Joe Biden and President Trump.”
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