Whenever a new report with an inside account of President Trump’s immorality or ignorance appears in the press, it includes a paragraph for official White House spokespeople to issue an indignant denial calling the media and its dozen or two sources liars. Jeffrey Goldberg’s blockbuster revelation in The Atlantic followed the ritual in form, though not in degree. The scope and intensity of the pushback was nuclear: Virtually every White House press official, past and present, denounced the story. Additional support for Trump poured in from several unofficial White House spokespeople in conservative media, including Kurt Schlichter, Mollie Hemmingway, and Ben Domenech, who solemnly promised, “I’m confident I have better sources within this White House than @JeffreyGoldberg, and I expect that upon investigation his anonymously sourced story will live up to the quality we can expect from The Atlantic under his leadership.”
Trump seemed to believe, correctly or otherwise, that the contempt for military service described in this report would be particularly damaging, given the emphasis he has placed on his standing as friend and protector of the troops.
We should grant the Trumpists this much: It is certainly possible that anonymous sources who had close access to Trump would be motivated to fabricate unflattering details about him. They have seen his gross unfitness for office firsthand, and it is at least imaginable that, having run out of damning firsthand accounts of his ignorance and immorality, they would resort to concocting or exaggerating new ones.
What’s more, traditional journalistic practice grants more credence to on-the-record sources than anonymous ones, because sources who put their name behind a claim are risking reputational embarrassment if it is falsified. That method would lend more credence to the named sources denying Goldberg’s account than to the unnamed ones endorsing it.
However, that principle obviously does not apply to this administration. Lying is not only common in the Trump administration, it is the cultural glue that holds the president’s coalition together. A willingness to endorse his lies is the most common method Trump uses to identify his loyalists. This is why the White House media was so flabbergasted when Sean Spicer angrily denounced reporters for accurately conveying crowd estimates at Trump’s inauguration: He blew up the presumption of honesty that gives weight to on-the-record denials on day one of the presidency.
This does not prove Trump’s supporters are lying in this instance: Sometimes liars tell the truth. But are they telling the truth in this instance?
While it’s impossible to directly prove any of these allegations, there is an impressive amount of corroborating evidence. Almost all of it supports Goldberg’s reporting.
One piece of evidence works against The Atlantic: John Bolton’s memoir emphasizes different reasons Trump canceled a visit to an American military cemetery in France in 2018. Goldberg’s four sources say Trump worried about the effect of rain on his hair, and commented, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.”
Bolton says the visit was canceled because the rain complicated helicopter travel, and the drive would have taken too long. Of course this does not directly contradict Goldberg’s reporting. It is entirely possible that there were multiple reasons for the cancellation, or that weather forced the cancellation and Trump decided to justify it by dismissing the value of honoring fallen soldiers. But Bolton’s recollection does count as a point in Trump’s defense.
On the other side, however, there are many pieces of supporting evidence. The Associated Press, New York Times, Fox News (!) and Washington Post quickly confirmed Goldberg’s reporting. The Post added several related details, in addition to Trump describing fallen soldiers as “losers.” “In one account, the president told senior advisers that he didn’t understand why the U.S. government placed such value on finding soldiers missing in action because they had performed poorly and gotten caught and deserved what they got, according to a person familiar with the discussion.”
What’s more, other sources have claimed that Trump dismisses the value of military service. Michael Cohen testified in 2018 that Trump admitted faking bone spurs to avoid serving in Vietnam and told him, “You think I’m stupid? I wasn’t going to Vietnam.” Mary Trump, in a previously recorded interview, said Trump threatened to disown one of her sons if he enlisted in the military. (It’s significant that she offered this account before Goldberg’s story, and thus could not have crafted it to fit a narrative created by Goldberg.)
Trump’s denial itself contains provable falsehoods:
First, Trump did call McCain a “loser.” It’s on video. Trump even tweeted the video of himself saying it:
Trump also made a version of the same attack in a 1999 interview, when he said of McCain, “He was captured,. Does being captured make you a hero? I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
Second, while Trump claims he lowered the White House flag to half-mast to honor McCain’s death “without hesitation or complaint,” four sources told the Times in 2018 that Trump stubbornly refused until finally and belatedly submitting. Former Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor confirmed the account today, on the record.
And finally there is the obvious fact that Trump, in 2015, disparaged John McCain for being captured. That is to say, the private comments Trump is fervently denying are merely grosser versions of his publicly explicated view, that being captured because his plane was shot down makes McCain a loser and not a hero.
This is the most remarkable fact about the defenses of Trump pouring in from the right. Trump is obviously a massive liar. He has already made clear that he does not respect military service. They are throwing what’s left of their reputations on the line to deny nothing more than an incrementally worse version of a reality that Trump has already revealed.
This post has been updated.