This sounds like a parody of media coverage of Donald Trump, but The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg seriously offered this claim as a feature. Using four anonymous sources, Goldberg claims that the cancellation of Trump’s visit to a World War I cemetery for US Marines in France was prompted by his opinion of the war dead as “losers” and “suckers.”
That has enough of the sound of the authentic Trump to make it provocative, but … did it really happen? Via Twitchy:
When President Donald Trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, he blamed rain for the last-minute decision, saying that “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and that the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. Neither claim was true.
Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” 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.
The rest of Goldberg’s article goes on in the same vein, offering anecdotes about Trump from anonymous sources about Trump’s transactional nature. Again, some of these appear to have the stamp of the authentic Trump on it, especially his transactional nature and easy resort to name-calling. But is any of it true?
Absolutely not, says Trump:
Absolutely not, say Trump’s staff who were along with him for the 2018 trip to Normandy:
A half-dozen current and former aides to Mr. Trump backed him up with Twitter messages disputing the Atlantic article. “I was actually there and one of the people part of the discussion — this never happened,” wrote Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was then the White House press secretary. “This is not even close to being factually accurate,” added Jordan Karem, the president’s personal aide at the time.
Furthermore, Trump visited another war cemetery the next day, which would be an odd thing to do if he objected to a visit to the Belleau Wood dead:
Aides at the time cited the rain in canceling a helicopter flight, but the president’s absence went over badly in Europe and in the United States. Mr. Trump did pay respects to the war dead the next day at the Suresnes American Cemetery outside Paris.
Er, doesn’t that visit undermine the purported motive supplied by Goldberg’s four anonymous sources? And a BuzzFeed reporter produces documents that show weather really was the reason for canceling the visit. Jason Leopold had filed a FOIA request in November 2018 for documents related to the visit, and got the e-mails that show nothing other than weather as the reason for stopping Trump from his planned visit:
Regarding the lede of this story: I obtained documents from the Navy via #FOIA about Trump's 2018 trip to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris and the documents say his transport was canceled by the Navy due to rain. https://t.co/oNWsvAPy1z pic.twitter.com/keFtW7QC8b
— Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) September 4, 2020
Finally, we have one witness with enough hostility toward Trump to make his testimony seem somewhat independent. John Bolton wrote about the cancellation of the trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in his memoir, in which he spared little vituperation toward Trump. And yet, Bolton doesn’t say anything about these purported comments — and says that the weather prompted the cancellation:
Bolton, no fan of Trump’s, on the decision for Trump to skip Belleau Woods pic.twitter.com/OG4hGFwIfQ
— Meridith McGraw (@meridithmcgraw) September 4, 2020
In fact, Bolton defends Trump from criticism over the decision in his book. He described the decision as entirely strategic, reluctantly recommended by John Kelly and adopted by Trump on Kelly’s recommendation. Bolton called the decision “straightforward,” and mentions nothing about disparaging remarks about dead soldiers:
The press turned canceling the cemetery visit into a story that Trump was afraid of the rain and took glee in pointing out that other world leaders traveled around during the day. Of course, none of them were the President of the United States, but the press didn’t understand that rules for US Presidents are different from the rules for 190 other world leaders who don’t command the world’s greatest military forces.
Trump actually blamed Kelly for the bad press, “unfairly,” as Bolton writes, opining that it was probably the decision that cost Kelly his job as chief of staff. Nowhere in this passage does Bolton describe any comments by Trump about refusing to visit military cemeteries for any reason, let alone because he thought they were “losers” and “suckers.” Given that Bolton’s motive for writing this book had little-to-nothing to do with defending Trump, this seems dispositive indeed that Trump didn’t drive that decision — and that Bolton and Kelly thought it was the correct call. Had the truth been anything close to what Goldberg wrote yesterday, does anyone doubt that Bolton would have gleefully recounted it in his memoirs? Come on, man.
With all this in mind, it looks like the only “sucker” in this story is Goldberg.
Update: The New York Times contacted Bolton this morning, who stood by his reporting on the decision:
He got support from an unlikely source on Friday when John R. Bolton, his former national security adviser who has broken with him and called him unfit for office, said he was on the trip in question and never heard Mr. Trump make those remarks. “I didn’t hear that,” Mr. Bolton said in an interview. “I’m not saying he didn’t say them later in the day or another time but I was there for that discussion.” …
Mr. Bolton said he was in the room at the ambassador’s residence when Mr. Trump arrived and Mr. Kelly told him that the helicopter trip had to be canceled. A two-hour motorcade would have put him too far away from Air Force One and the most capable communications array a president needs in case of an emergency, per usual protocol, Mr. Bolton said. “It was a straight weather call,” Mr. Bolton said.
While Mr. Bolton said he did not hear the president disparage troops, he added that Mr. Trump did not protest the decision, as he now says he did. “He didn’t say, ‘This is terrible, I have to go out to the veterans,’” Mr. Bolton said. “He accepted it and that was pretty much the end of it.” Having said that, Mr. Bolton added, the reported comments were not out of character. “I haven’t heard anybody yet react to say, ‘That’s not the Donald Trump I know,’” he said.
Notably, the NYT Twitter feed highlighted the last part of Bolton’s statement, but they do at least report on Bolton’s rebuttal to The Atlantic piece.