Donald Trump generates a lot of noise. He talks. He tweets. He is echoed and amplified by a vast claque, on TV and online, made up of Americans and foreigners, humans and bots.
Never has he shouted louder than in the days since my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg reported the president’s disparaging comments about those who have fallen, been maimed, or taken prisoner in war.
Trump’s protestations have been seconded by his wife. The first lady’s endorsement of Trump’s pro-military credentials has been repeated by Trump Cabinet secretaries, as well as by Fox News talking heads, and by a recipient of a Trump pardon.
Amid the clamor, it’s easy to overlook those who are not yelling, those who are keeping silent. Where are the senior officers of the United States armed forces, serving and retired—the men and women who worked most closely on military affairs with President Trump? Has any one of them stepped forward to say, “That’s not the man I know”?
How many wounded warriors have stepped forward to attest to Trump’s care and concern for them? How many Gold Star families have stepped forward on Trump’s behalf? How many service families?
The silence is resounding. And when such voices do speak, they typically describe a president utterly lacking in empathy to grieving families, wholly uncomprehending of sacrifice and suffering.
In September 2017, four U.S. soldiers fell in action in the African country of Niger. One of them was Sergeant La David Johnson. Trump placed a call to his widow, Myeshia Johnson. A family friend, Frederica Wilson, the representative for Florida’s Twenty-Fourth Congressional District, reported Trump’s attempt at consolation: “He knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” Trump responded by launching Twitter and TV denials. Myeshia Johnson spoke about that call on ABC’s Good Morning America, confirming Wilson’s account, and adding more: “I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name. And that what’s hurting me the most. Because if my husband was out here fighting for our country, and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name?” Talking to Trump about her fallen husband, Myeshia Johnson said, “made me upset and cry even more.”
In June 2017, Sergeant Dillon Baldridge and two other soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. Trump called the Baldridge family. On the call, Baldridge’s father, Chris, complained about the slowness of military survivor benefits. To which Trump replied, “I'm going to write you a check out of my personal account for $25,000.” The promised check, of course, never arrived. Three months later, the elder Baldridge told his story to The Washington Post. “I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this. He said, ‘No other president has ever done something like this,’ but he said, ‘I’m going to do it.’”
Only then, after Baldridge went public, was Trump shamed into making good on his weird, inappropriate, and insincere promise of personal assistance.
Trump has rarely met families who received remains of their loved ones at Dover Air Force Base. Media reports count just four visits, because—in the words of an aide—he had been “rattled” by an angry outburst from the father of William “Ryan” Owens, killed in action in Yemen in February 2017. The elder Owens had refused to shake Trump’s hand.
Trump soon recovered his composure. At his first speech to a joint session of Congress in February 2017, Trump told Ryan Owens’s widow, Carryn, that Owens would have been happy because the applause at the mention of his name “broke a record.” Later that month, Trump gave an interview to Fox News and shoved blame for the failed raid that cost Owens’s life onto “the generals.” “They lost Ryan,” he said.
Trump has repeatedly slighted concerns over the well-being of U.S. troops. Here he is in Davos, answering questions about U.S. soldiers who had suffered injuries in an Iranian missile attack.
Weijia Jang: Mr. President, a question on Iran: Initially, you said repeatedly to Americans that after Iran retaliated for the Soleimani strike, no Americans were injured. We now know at least 11 U.S. servicemen were airlifted from Iraq. Can you explain the discrepancy?
Donald Trump: No, I heard that they had headaches, and a couple of other things. But I would say, and I can report it is not very serious—not very serious.
Jang: So you don’t consider a potential traumatic brain injury serious?
Trump: They told me about it numerous days later. You’d have to ask [the] Department of Defense. No, I don’t consider them very serious injuries, relative to other injuries that I’ve seen.
I’ve seen what Iran has done with their roadside bombs to our troops. I’ve seen people with no legs and with no arms. I’ve seen people that were horribly, horribly injured in that area, that war—in fact, many cases put—those bombs put there by Soleimani, who is no longer with us. I consider them to be really bad injuries.
No, I do not consider that to be bad injuries. No.
President Trump disparaged the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt after that naval officer warned superiors of a COVID-19 outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier.
Here we have one of the greatest—here we have one of the greatest ships in the world. Nuclear aircraft carrier. Incredible ship with thousands and thousands of people. And you had about 120 that were infected.
Now, I guess the captain stopped in Vietnam and people got off in Vietnam. Perhaps you don’t do that in the middle of a pandemic or—or something that looked like it was going to be—you know, history would say you don’t necessarily stop and let your sailors get off, No. 1.
But more importantly, he wrote a letter. The letter was a five-page letter from a captain, and the letter was all over the place. That’s not appropriate. I don’t think that’s appropriate. And these are tough people. These are tough, strong people.
I thought it looked terrible, to be honest with you. Now, they made their decision. I didn’t make the decision. [The] secretary of defense was involved and a lot of people were involved. I thought it was terrible what he did to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear-powered. And he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter. He could call and ask and suggest.
The uniformed military will remember how Trump has abused one of the greatest commanders of the age, Admiral William McRaven, who commanded the operations that captured Saddam Hussein and killed Osama bin Laden. In November 2018, Fox News’s Chris Wallace asked about an op-ed by McRaven that complained of Trump’s divisiveness.
Chris Wallace: Bill McRaven, retired admiral, Navy SEAL, 37 years, former head of U.S. Special Operations—
Donald Trump: Hillary Clinton fan.
Wallace: —Special Operations—
Trump: Excuse me, Hillary Clinton fan.
Wallace: —who led the operations, commanded the operations that took down Saddam Hussein and that killed Osama bin Laden, says that your sentiment is the greatest threat to democracy in his lifetime.”
Trump: Okay, he’s a Hilary Clinton backer and an Obama backer, and frankly … wouldn’t it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that? Wouldn’t it have been nice? You know, living—think of this—living in Pakistan, beautifully in Pakistan.
Trump has also abused General Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of forces in Afghanistan:“‘General’ McChrystal got fired like a dog by Obama. Last assignment a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth. Hillary lover!”
And how did he treat Marine General John Allen, another former Afghanistan commander, who later coordinated the fight against ISIS? “His record = BAD”
Or Marine General James Mattis, Trump’s own former secretary of defense? “The world’s most over-rated general.”
So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Trump went looking for military character witnesses, he could find so few to vouch for him.
One of the most striking things about Trump is how seldom, if ever, anybody tells a story of kindness and compassion about him. Not even his own children have much to say. Here’s his daughter Tiffany at the Republican convention in 2016:
My father always asked about my family in Georgia, to make sure that they are healthy and safe … A few years ago, someone very dear to me passed away, and the first call I got, as I knew I would, came from my father.
And that’s it. Few former employees of the Trump administration praise him as a boss. Few business partners speak of his honesty. Few tenants of Trump buildings have anything good to say about the homes he supposedly built. Few officials of any city have been willing to celebrate any contribution to urban life. Few beneficiaries of any Trump philanthropy.
Imagine a man who has lived in the public eye for half a century, supposedly one of the country’s leading business figures, and when in trouble he struggles to summon credible or trustworthy witnesses from outside the Fox Cinematic Universe. There’s just a gaping zero where goodness should be.
So when it is reported—first in The Atlantic, then by The Washington Post, the AP, CNN, and Fox News—that multiple sources have heard Trump sneer and jibe at America’s fallen, the reporting rings true because it is consistent with the public record. The denials ring false because they defy that public record.
The things reported fit in the mouth you know. Everybody knows it’s true, and most especially those who have been tasked to deny it.