Trump and the military: Will new allegations hurt him?

An explosive report accused President Trump of making repeated disparaging remarks about members of the U.S. military, including those who died in battle, as “losers” and “suckers.” The report, published late last week by the Atlantic, relied on several anonymous sources to paint an image of a commander in chief who lacks respect for, if not openly disdains, American service members.

Trump has vehemently denied the allegations and accused the historic magazine of publishing a “fake story.” Several people close to the president have also gone on the record rebutting the claims. On Monday, Trump went further, calling the story “phony,” “made up” and a “hoax.” 

The story’s author, Atlantic editor Jeffery Goldberg, stands by his reporting. A number of other news outlets have published their own reports from sources backing up aspects of Goldberg’s account.

Trump has had a tumultuous relationship with the military during his presidency. He has frequently praised service members in public, named several veterans to top posts in his administration and featured the military at official events. 

At the same time, Trump has feuded with the retired generals in his own administration, some of whom have openly criticized him after departing the White House. That list includes Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general who was present during key events in the Atlantic’s account. 

Why there’s debate

Though the president and his allies insist that the allegations are false, the reported statements could damage Trump’s standing with key groups he needs to win reelection, some political experts say. 

Veterans supported Trump over Hillary Clinton by a substantial margin in 2016. But his approval rating among active-duty military personnel slipped over the course of his first term, according to a recent poll. Trump’s actions on military matters — including his dismissing reports of Russian bounties on American soldiers and his suggestion that the military be used to squash protests in U.S. cities — have eroded his support among the armed forces, poll respondents said. 

Joe Biden’s campaign and several anti-Trump groups have latched onto the alleged statements in ads aimed at turning swing voters against the president. The report has also forced Trump to spend several days refuting the allegations, which costs him precious time that could be used getting his own message out as the election rapidly approaches. 

Others are skeptical the report will have much of an impact on the election. A sizable portion of his core supporters will be convinced by Trump’s denials. And some voters will be skeptical of quotes attributed to anonymous sources when Trump’s allies have gone on the record to defend him. 

Some say the allegations won’t affect voters’ opinions in any substantial way, even if the damning quotes are somehow proven accurate. At this point in his presidency, the public has had plenty of time to make up their minds about whether Trump’s incendiary statements are disqualifying or not. These new claims won’t sway voters out of their firmly established camps, they argue. 

11 PHOTOSDonald Trump on Memorial Day 2018See GalleryDonald Trump on Memorial Day 2018US President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (3rd L) mark Memorial Day by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018 (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)(L-R) US President Donald Trump, with US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, sings the National Anthem during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (3rd L) mark Memorial Day by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018 (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump marks Memorial Day with a speech at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump (L) greets US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (C) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford(R) before speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump applauds while speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump marks Memorial Day with a speech at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump marks Memorial Day by laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018 (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump (L) arrives to speak after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018 with US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (2nd R) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford (R). (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)(L-R) US President Donald Trump, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford attend a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)US President Donald Trump shakes hands with members of the military after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on May 28, 2018. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)Up Next

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What’s next

On Sunday evening, the Washington Post published a story containing new allegations of disparaging remarks about the military made by Trump during his time as a private businessman. 

The Atlantic report appears to have opened a new line of inquiry for reporters from a number of outlets to pursue, meaning more stories accusing Trump of criticizing veterans could be coming soon. Goldberg told CNN he expects to publish more reporting on the topic in the coming days and weeks. 

Perspectives

The Trump campaign’s response shows it believes the allegations are damaging

“The White House reaction makes it clear that they view this as politically toxic for the president. It undermines so vividly a core plank of their reelection campaign that he’s the president who has rebuilt the military.” — Former national security official Peter Feaver to NPR

Trump’s history of public statements make his denials harder to believe

“Had this report come out about, say, George W. Bush or Barack Obama, and they had denied it forcefully — as Trump has — it would be a near-certainty that most people (and the media) would accept that the story was just flat wrong. Because there was no indication in any of their past behavior that would indicate they might ever utter such sentiments about the military.

That’s simply not the case with Trump.” — Chris Cillizza, CNN

Allegations like these this close to the election could be damaging

“While it’s not new for current and former military members to express outrage over a Trump comment or decision … what’s different in this newest round is the proximity to the election.” — Lara Seligman, Politico

Even a small drop in support among veterans could cost Trump in key swing states

“In an election that will be won on the margins in key battleground states, Democrats are hoping small movements will help, especially in states like North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, where in 2016 Mr. Trump won twice as many voters with a military background than Hillary Clinton did. In such states, a small number of veteran and military votes, supplementing a base of Black and Hispanic voters, could be enough for Democrats to win.” — Jennifer Steinhauer, New York Times

Nothing will shake Trump’s support among his base

“Trump is the leader of red America, and red America will stick with him no matter what, because, despite all evidence to the contrary, it is convinced that Joe Biden will somehow be worse.” — Max Boot, Washington Post

The public is too entrenched in their opinions for the report to make a difference

“Goldberg’s article will persuade no one. No opponent of the president will be surprised by the piece. No supporter of the president will take Jeffrey Goldberg’s word for it that Trump is a veteran-hating monster.” — Isaac Schorr, National Review

The report pushed good economic news off the front page

“The attention on the reported remarks diluted any positive attention the president may have wanted on a substantial news story: the unemployment rate dropping to 8.4 percent from 10.2 percent.” — Josh Robin, Spectrum News

The use of anonymous sources blunts the impact of the report

“Reports like this one threaten to undermine what little trust the public still has in the media. Seriously, why should readers take these sources at their word on a gossipy tidbit like this when not a single one is willing to say it publicly?” — Kaylee McGhee, Washington Examiner

The public has lost faith that the media can cover Trump fairly and accurately

“The media’s bias has created a permission structure, whereby conservatives can justify ignoring or nullifying any inconvenient news. Truth be told, the mainstream media has invited this scrutiny.” — Matt Lewis, Daily Beast

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