WASHINGTON (Reuters) – 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.
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 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-mattis-withdrawal/trump-takes-parting-shot-at-mattis-and-his-view-of-u-s-allies-idUSKCN1ON0QX, as well as the late U.S. Senator John McCain https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-mccain/mccains-widow-daughter-punch-back-at-trumps-twitter-tirade-idUSKCN1R12RG.
“It will resonate” with the military, he added.
The furor over the Sept. 3 report in The Atlantic could undermine Trump’s re-election message that he would maintain “law and order,” and that he strongly supports U.S. military personnel and their families – a key Republican constituency, which largely backed Trump in 2016.
Trump’s rival in November, former Vice President Joe Biden, like Trump, did not serve in the military, but his late son Beau did a one-year tour in Iraq as a National Guard captain.
Biden sought to capitalize upon the uproar on Sunday by highlighting his own record of support for the armed forces with an advertisement aimed at areas in battleground states with large numbers of military personnel.
A Biden campaign spokesman said the ad, which debuted earlier in the year, would be re-launched nationwide during cable television news programs on Sunday night and would also feature on Facebook and Instagram throughout the week as part of a broader $47 million campaign.
The Lincoln Project, a prominent Republican-backed group opposing Trump’s re-election, released a video on Saturday attacking the president’s comments and broader record on the military. Trump 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.
Biden also did not serve in Vietnam, receiving five student draft deferments and eventually being disqualified from military service because of asthma as a teenager, according to records released by aides to the Associated Press in 2008.
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 canceling 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.
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.
“It breaks your heart,” U.S. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told MSNBC of Trump’s reported comments.
Asked about critics saying that Trump had shown a pattern of disrespect towards the military, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said the President has shown his “reverence for American service members by both his words and deeds.”
“There are ample examples of his compassion for the families of fallen heroes and of his dedication to ensuring that veterans receive the medical care they deserve,” he added.
CORE VOTERS, MILITARY SPENDING
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 military personnel for their commander-in-chief may be slipping.
A Military Times poll of more than 1,000 active-duty personnel 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.
Trump has repeatedly touted his administration’s military spending while also moving to pull troops out of conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, as well from allied countries such as Germany.
More recently, he has said he would block a Pentagon plan to cut military healthcare by $2.2 billion and reverse its plan to close the Stars and Stripes military newspaper.
Top Trump administration officials, including U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, have rallied to Trump’s defense as the controversy has grown in recent days.
On Sunday, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie told CNN’s “State of the Union” he had never heard Trump disparage the military. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters Trump supported the military “100%.”
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Jeff Mason, Ted Hesson, Michelle Price and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Andrea Ricci, Sonya Hepinstall and Aurora Ellis)