President Donald Trump was on the defensive on Sunday over what critics said was a “pattern” of disrespect towards the U.S. military following media reports that he had disparaged fallen veterans, the fallout from which could harm his campaign for re-election on Nov. 3.
Democratic and Republican opponents alike over the weekend seized on the reports - which said that Trump had called U.S. soldiers buried in Europe “losers” - to attack his record on the military on news shows and in political ads.
“It breaks your heart,” U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the reported comments in an interview on MSNBC on Sunday.
The furor over the Sept. 3 report in The Atlantic could undermine Trump’s re-election message that he would maintain law and order amid nationwide protests, and that he strongly supports U.S. military personnel and their families – a key Republican constituency which largely backed Trump in 2016.
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a Republican, told ABC’s “This Week” that the remarks, if true, were “despicable.”
Hagel said the reports were “credible” because they were consistent with previous public remarks Trump had made denigrating military personnel, including former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis as well as the late U.S. Senator John McCain.
“It will resonate” with the military, he added.
Retired U.S. Army Colonel Jeff McCausland wrote in an NBC News op-ed on Sunday that Trump over the years had demonstrated “a clear pattern of disrespect toward the military.”
The Atlantic reported that Trump made the disparaging remarks after cancelling a visit to an American cemetery during a November 2018 trip to France, an account the president denied on Thursday and on Sunday said was “disinformation.”
“They will say anything, like their recent lies about me and the Military, and hope that it sticks,” he tweeted, referring to the media and the Democratic Party, whose nominee Joe Biden is vying for the presidency in November.
The Atlantic has stood by its report, which cited four unnamed people with firsthand knowledge of the matter and which was later confirmed by several other media outlets.
Bloomberg on Sunday reported that Trump spent the extra free time in Paris selecting artwork to ship from the U.S. ambassador’s residence to the White House. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the Bloomberg report.
Former Vice President Biden, whose late son Beau served in Iraq, on Sunday capitalized upon the uproar to highlight his own record of military support with an advertisement aimed at areas with large numbers of military personnel in battleground states.
The ad will air nationwide on Sunday night during cable television news programs and on Facebook and Instagram throughout the week as part of a broader $47 million campaign, a spokesman told Reuters on Sunday.
The Lincoln Project, a prominent Republican-backed group opposing Trump’s re-election, on Saturday released a new video attacking the president’s comments and broader record on the military. Trump has never served and avoided the draft for the Vietnam war, citing bone spurs in his feet.
“He’s a draft-dodger in chief who despises the men and women he supposedly leads. He insults their deaths and injuries with his contempt,” it said.
Trump has repeatedly touted his administration’s spending on the military while also moving to pull American troops out of conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, as well as out of allied countries such as Germany.
More recently, he has said he would block the Pentagon’s plan to cut military health care by $2.2 billion and reverse its plan to close the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.
Trump’s core voters have in the past forgiven him for derisive comments on McCain and other issues, but there are signs that support among active-duty military personnel for their commander-in-chief may be slipping.
A Military Times poll of more than 1,000 active-duty service members taken late July to early August and published last week, before the latest reports, showed waning support for Trump and a slight preference for Biden.
Several top administration officials, including U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, have rallied to Trump’s defence as the controversy has grown in recent days.
On Sunday, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie told CNN’s “State of the Union” that he had never heard the president disparage the military or veterans. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the White House that Trump supported the military “100%.”
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