Fearful forecasts are afoot with the presidential election creeping closer.
President Donald Trump declares he can only lose if the election is rigged. That’s a surmise commonly uttered by despots in mock democratic countries, such as Russia, who then rig the outcome.
Rival Joe Biden predicts urban unrest will worsen if Trump is re-elected, blaming the president’s harsh law-and-order rhetoric for inciting violence on America’s streets. That’s a disquieting message.
Both statements bespeak a jabbing forefinger campaign from now to Nov. 3 Election Day. The target: A thinning herd of undecided voters in a cluster of battleground states key to an Electoral College victory.
Fasten your seatbelts for a roller coaster ride wrought with steep surprises.
Like the Atlantic magazine’s report Trump once privately disparaged American military killed or captured in war as “losers” and “suckers.”
The president angrily denounced the report as a “hoax” aimed at influencing the election. “To me,” he said, “they’re heroes.”
Still, there’s simmering doubt given Trump’s previous public dismissal of the late Sen. John McCain as a Vietnam War hero because he was captured, tortured and held as a prisoner of war for 5 ½ years.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said while running for president in 2015. “I like people who were not captured.” He also tweeted an online post calling McCain “a loser,” although the president on Friday denied ever calling him that.
There were other occasions when Trump’s comments rankled the military: acerbic rebuke of the Gold Star parents of a soldier son killed in Iraq, belittling retired Marine Gen. James Mattis after his departure as defense secretary, declaring he knew more about ISIS than military leaders, and calling retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of American troops in Afghanistan, a “big, dumb mouth” for questioning Trump’s veracity.
The Atlantic attributed Trump’s private derogatory comments to four unnamed individuals “with firsthand knowledge.” The article said the “losers” and “suckers” remarks occurred during discussions on whether to cancel a scheduled presidential trip to a U.S. military cemetery near Paris on Nov. 10, 2018, to honor 1,800 World War I U.S. Marines buried there.
Trump was in Paris to observe the 100th anniversary of the war’s end. The cemetery visit had been suggested by his then chief of staff, John Kelly, a retired four star Marine general. But rainy, overcast weather made a quick helicopter flight dicey, and driving to the site 50 miles outside Paris got rejected because it could disrupt traffic and take 90 minutes. So the president skipped the visit.
Neither traffic nor time deterred Kelly and General Joseph Dunford Jr., former Marine Commandant and then chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff. They were part of the president’s Paris entourage. They traveled by car that day to the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, site of the “Battle of Belleau Wood,” one of the most memorable battles in Marine Corps history. It lasted a month, including hand-to-hand combat, across wheat fields, on hills and in woods. The Marines eventually prevailed, saving Paris from the advancing German army.
The Atlantic article, by its chief editor Jeffrey Goldberg, said during Trump’s conversations with his senior staff members the president asked: “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” The article also said he later referred to the Marines buried at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.
As expected, White House officials denied the president would ever say such things, and professed his love of the military. Former national security adviser, John Bolton, a Trump critic, wasn’t so absolute. He said he participated in the discussion on visiting the military cemetery and “didn’t hear that. … I’m not saying he didn’t say them (comments) later in the day or another time, but I was there for that discussion.”
Four other news outlets – Associated Press, Washington Post, CNN and Fox News – said they independently confirmed parts of the Atlantic article with their unnamed sources. Trump promptly called on Fox, who he considers mostly friendly, to fire its reporter, Jennifer Griffin, who checked out the Atlantic accusations.
A veteran national security reporter, Griffin stood by the credibility of her sources, saying they are not anonymous to her and doubted “they are anonymous to the president.”
Reliance on nameless sources, by their nature, raises credibility questions. In this instance, however, multiple news outlets set out to determine the truth or falsity of the accusations and independently confirmed some of them.
Yet the anonymity also allowed Trump to strongly label the accusations fake news -- and tweet blame to “disgusting & jealous failures” whom he did not identify.
Strangely, he also told reporters he “would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more. No animal, nobody. What animal would say such a thing?”
Trump knows his support with the military community is at stake. A recent Military Times poll had Biden ahead of Trump among active military, 41 percent versus 37 percent.
So it is not surprising Trump on Friday reversed his administration’s decision to shutter the Pentagon-funded Stars and Stripes newspaper, a news source since the Civil War to soldiers stationed around the world. It gives voice to rank-and-file troops as well as officers, an approach that’s rankled presidents and generals.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper zeroed out the paper’s annual budget of $15.5 million, starting with the new fiscal year on Oct. 1, an unpopular move with veterans and current military. And there was no indication it would survive the defunding until the day the Atlantic article hit.
Biden didn’t pick up on the president’s animal analogy but he did assert if the Atlantic article is true, it underscored the disagreement between he and Trump over the role of the president.
“I have long said that, as a nation, we have many obligations, but we have only one truly sacred obligation – 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.”
A noble statement. Yet the advantages of incumbency to discredit anonymous accusations definitely leaves undecided voters betwixt and between.
Bill Ketter is the senior vice president for CNHI, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.