Why Would Anyone Who Has Worn An American Service Uniform Vote For Trump?

What Kind of ‘Psycho’ Calls Dead Americans ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’?

Adrienne LaFrance/The Atlantic

Trump’s denial of his own well-documented remarks is a tell.

Perhaps you’ve noticed lately that Donald Trump, a man not known for subtlety, has been testing the limits of the Streisand effect. At one event after another—at a rally, then a fundraiser, in remarks on his social platform, and in at least one video that his campaign distributed online—Trump keeps reminding his supporters about his well-documented habit of disparaging America’s military service members as “dumb,” “losers,” and “suckers.”

“Think of it, from a practical standpoint,” Trump saidbefore a crowd in Las Vegas earlier this month. “I’m standing there with generals and military people in a cemetery, and I look at them and say, ‘These people are suckers and losers.’ Now, think of it, unless you’re a psycho or a crazy person or a very stupid person, who would say that, anyway?”

As it happens, the American people have, by now, a very clear picture of the kind of person who would say such a thing.

Recall Trump’s infamous 2015 remarks about Senator John McCain, who was tortured during his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam: “He’s not a war hero,” Trump insisted. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Then there was the time in 2016 when Trump publicly mocked and belittled Khzir and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a fallen U.S. Army officer, Humayun Khan, who had been killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2004. (Trump is “devoid of feeling the pain of a mother who has sacrificed her son,” Khzir said at the time.)

Then, in 2020, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, reported several instances in which Trump openly expressed disgust for America’s dead service members. There was the time in Arlington National Cemetery, on Memorial Day in 2017, when Trump was standing at the grave of Robert Kelly, a young Marine officer who had been killed in Afghanistan. Trump was visiting the cemetery with his then–Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and father to Robert. As Goldberg first reported, “Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’”

During a trip to France the following year, faced with the prospect of visiting another cemetery, this time to pay respects to service members killed in World War I, Trump complained: “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” (Trump’s loyalists have attempted to redirect attention to the weather that day, arguing that it really was too rainy for a visit.) And, as Goldberg first reported, “in a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as ‘suckers’ for getting killed.”

In subsequent reporting, including his 2023 profile of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Goldberg uncovered additional incidents in which Trump disparaged American service members. At one military ceremony, for example, a wounded Army captain who’d completed five combat tours and lost a leg in an IED attack nearly tumbled over. Others, including then–Vice President Mike Pence, rushed to help the man. But Trump complained to Milley in a voice loud enough for several people to hear: “Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded.”

Trump has spent years attempting to deny these incidents—all while experienced journalists writing for multiple news organizations have corroborated The Atlantic’s initial reporting. But recently, Trump has become newly preoccupied with Goldberg (whom Trump mentioned by name and described as a “horrible radical left lunatic” at a rally last month) and with his reporting on Trump’s disdain for the Americans who volunteer to serve their country. And Trump seems preoccupied generally with denying his own record of disparaging service members. (Listening to his clumsy attempts to deny what he said, I can’t help but think of Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude—“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”—or at least the unraveling guilt of the narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart.)

That Trump would lie is unsurprising. But his recent obsession is curious because it represents a rare instance in which he avoids doubling down on his own provocations. And it is revealing—presumably reflecting some sort of poll that has found that Americans don’t particularly like their war dead to be mocked by the once and prospective commander in chief. (I suppose it’s possible that on some level, Trump feels ashamed of what he said, but shame typically requires a baseline degree of self-awareness and empathy.)

“They made up a story about me with suckers and losers,” Trump said at a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., last weekend. “They made up this story about me, looking down at graves, saying ‘suckers’—they make it up. Suckers and losers. Who would? Surrounded by military people. There’s nobody that’s stupid enough to make that statement. Think of it. And I was president. I would have said that would have been justified for somebody to start taking swings at me as president. But they made it up. It’s a phrase that was totally made up by a third-rate magazine that’s going out of business, losing a fortune. I think it was The Atlantic. A magazine that nobody reads.” (The Atlanticis profitable and recently announced that it has more than 1 million subscribers.) “It’s horrible,” he later added. “Who would say it?”

Well, Trump said it. And over the past four years, several more journalists have reported as much. One day after Goldberg’s 2020 story appeared, Jennifer Griffin, a national-security correspondent for Fox News, found in her own reporting that Trump had “disparaged veterans.” One former senior Trump-administration official told Griffin that Trump said anyone who served in Vietnam “was a sucker,” she reported. “This former official heard the President say about American veterans: ‘What’s in it for them? They don’t make any money.’” Griffin also corroborated details first reported by Goldberg about how Trump did not want to include wounded service members in military parades. “Regarding Trump’s July 4th military parade, during a planning session at the White House after seeing the Bastille Day parade in 2017, the President said regarding the inclusion of ‘wounded guys’ ‘that’s not a good look’ ‘Americans don’t like that,’ source confirms,” Griffin tweeted.

Trump attacked her in response. “Jennifer Griffin should be fired for this kind of reporting,” he tweeted at the time. “Fox News is gone!” The Washington Postsubsequently reported that “Trump believed people who served in the Vietnam War must be ‘losers’ because they hadn’t gotten out of it, according to a person familiar with the comments.” (The newspaper also noted that although Trump, in a tweeted response to the Atlanticstory, claimed that “I never called John [McCain] a loser. I swear on whatever, or whoever, I was asked to swear on,” he did in fact call McCain a loser in a 2015 interview, which you can watch for yourself.)

The New York Timessimilarly reported that its sources verified “that Mr. Trump resisted supporting an official funeral and lowering flags after the death of Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam War hero whose military service he had disparaged.” (Ultimately, Trump relented, and the flags were lowered.) And the Times reported that “people familiar with Mr. Trump’s private conversations say he has long scorned those who served in Vietnam as being too dumb to have gotten out of it,” as Trump had done. The Times further reported that “some also recalled him asking why the United States should be so interested in finding captured soldiers” who are prisoners of war.

This past October, John Kelly publicly confirmed the details that Goldberg first reported in a statement to CNN’s Jake Tapper. This came in the weeks following Goldberg’s profile of Milley, and Trump’s subsequent suggestion that Milley be executed for treason. Here is how Kelly put it:

What can I add that has not already been said? A person that thinks those who defend their country in uniform, or are shot down or seriously wounded in combat, or spend years being tortured as POWs are all “suckers” because “there is nothing in it for them.” A person that did not want to be seen in the presence of military amputees because “it doesn’t look good for me.” A person who demonstrated open contempt for a Gold Star family—for all Gold Star families—on TV during the 2016 campaign, and rants that our most precious heroes who gave their lives in America’s defense are “losers” and wouldn’t visit their graves in France … A person that has no idea what America stands for and has no idea what America is all about. A person who cavalierly suggests that a selfless warrior who has served his country for 40 years in peacetime and war should lose his life for treason—in expectation that someone will take action. A person who admires autocrats and murderous dictators. A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution, and the rule of law. There is nothing more that can be said. God help us.

And in his new book, The Return of Great Powers, the CNN national-security reporter Jim Sciutto quotes Kelly telling him that Trump “would often say, ‘Why do you people all say that these guys who get wounded or killed are heroes? They’re suckers for going in the first place, and they’re losers.’”

On November 9, 2010, Robert Kelly stepped on a concealed bomb while leading his platoon in Afghanistan. Donald Trump, meanwhile, was somewhere in between tweets promoting his television game show, The Apprentice, and a Fox News appearance during which he dangled the prospect of running for office.

Robert Kelly was 29 when he died. He was also a newlywed. And he was a friend and brother to many more who served in the military. In an obituary, Robert’s friends and family recalled his quick wit and strong sense of duty. They remembered the charm and persistence with which he pursued his first date with the woman who would become his wife. They noted his fondness for history and for ice hockey. And they described his deep love of country. “He went quickly and thank God he did not suffer,” Kelly’s father wrote to his friends after Robert died. “In combat that is as good as it gets.” The elder Kelly described the pain of his loss as “unimaginable.”

Trump has never served in the U.S. military. “Bone spurs” won him an exemption from Vietnam. He has never had to triple-check to make sure his uniform was in regulation, or taken a combat-fitness test. He has never watched his spouse walk out the door for the last time before deployment. He has never cared for a family member who returned from war with permanent injuries. And he has never received the unfathomable news that one of his children was killed in action. Millions of Americans have. But Trump is nothing like them.

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