Watch CBS News

Trump denies report that he called service members "losers" and "suckers"

Trump denies calling fallen soldiers "suckers" and "losers"
Trump denies calling fallen soldiers "suckers" and "losers" 03:48

President Trump emphatically denied a new report that said he had called Americans who died at war "losers" and "suckers." 

"I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more. So, I just think it's a horrible, horrible thing," he told reporters, as he returned from a airport rally in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Thursday night. 

Earlier in the evening, he tweeted, "I never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES. This is more made up Fake News given by disgusting & jealous failures in a disgraceful attempt to influence the 2020 Election!" 

The article, published Thursday and reported by The Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg, cites four anonymous sources with firsthand knowledge of Mr. Trump's comments. It says the president canceled his visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 in part because he believed the Marines who died in the battle of Belleau Wood during World War I were "suckers." According to the report, Mr. Trump said, "Why should I go to that cemetery? It's filled with losers."

Mr. Trump denied this, saying, "I was ready to go to the ceremony," but weather prevented him from attending. 

"It was raining about as hard as I've ever seen. And on top of that it was very, very foggy. And the helicopter was unable to fly. It was a fairly long helicopter flight, but it was a very long drive," he told reporters Thursday. The Secret Service, he said, told him, "'You can't do it.' It was two and a half hours, two hours of driving." Mr. Trump said he responded, "'I want to do it.' They said, 'You can't.' There was no way I would have been able to do it." He also told reporters, "I spoke to my wife, I said, 'I hate this, I came here to go to that ceremony.'... I said, 'I feel terrible,' and that was the end of it."

The president seemed to speculate about the sources, "Probably it's a couple of people that have been failures in the administration that I got rid of. I couldn't get rid of them fast enough. Or it was just made up. But it's unthinkable."

"Anybody that — if they really exist — if people really exist that would have said that, they're low lifes and they're liars," the president said.

Hogan Gidley, who is currently the Trump campaign's national press secretary, traveled with the president during the trip to France as deputy White House press secretary. In a phone interview, Gidley denied the report.

"That is a disgusting grotesque lie. I was there. The president never said that. And he would never even think such a vile thought because I know from firsthand knowledge that the president absolutely loves, respects, and reveres the brave men and women of the U.S. military," Gidley told CBS News.

He also slammed the anonymous sources cited in the report, saying, "These weak, pathetic, cowardly sources, with no firsthand knowledge, do not have the courage nor the decency to put their name to that false accusation because they know how completely ludicrous it is."

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Friday also strongly denied The Atlantic's report, saying it was based on "four cowardly anonymous sources, who probably do not even exist."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper issued a statement in response to the article that was not a denial. Esper was in France during the events in question, but he was not yet the secretary of defense. At the time, James Mattis was still the secretary of defense. 

"President Trump has the highest respect and admiration for our nation's military members, veterans and families. That is why he has fought for greater pay and more funding for our armed forces," Esper said in a statement issued to the media.

A senior Defense official says Esper was in France during the events in question, and recalls that the weather was bad. At the time, according to the official, he was aware the flight was canceled for weather reasons, and never heard any other allegations like those in The Atlantic until the story broke. 

Jordan Karem, who was the president's former director of oval operations served and his "body man" before he left the White House in 2018, said that he was with the president for the majority of the day when the commemoration at the cemetery was to take place and denied that the president had uttered the remarks alleged by the Atlantic. Karem said Mr. Trump never called the American soldiers buried in France "losers" and called the story "100% false."

"I was with the president the whole day, and he was greatly disappointed that we couldn't go," Karem said. At the time, as the president noted, the White House cited bad weather for Mr. Trump's inability to attend the ceremony, located about 50 miles from Paris, where he was staying. However, other world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, visited sites outside the city on that day, despite the rain.

National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien said he wasn't in the meeting in question but called the article's publication "sad" and insisted the president has always been supportive of the military. O'Brien said he's never seen anything like that happen. 

CBS News did obtain a copy of an email showing there was a bad weather call that day for the flight, a message sent from someone in the U.S. Marine Corps. 

The report by The Atlantic also says that Mr. Trump referred to the late Senator John McCain as a "loser" and complained about lowering flags to half mast after his death. McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in a North Vietnamese prison. In 2015, Mr. Trump publicly said that McCain was "not a war hero" because he had been captured, adding "I like people who weren't captured."

In person and in a series of tweets on Thursday evening, Mr. Trump admitted that he was "never a fan" of McCain, but said he "never called" the late senator a loser. 

However, at the same 2015 event where he questioned McCain's status as a war hero, Mr. Trump said that he liked McCain less after his 2008 loss to Barack Obama, because "I don't like losers."

Mr. Trump recalled in a tweet that he had ordered flags to be lowered "without hesitation or complaint" after McCain's death. Miles Taylor, the former chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security, contradicted Mr. Trump's claim, saying on Twitter that he was "angry" DHS notified federal buildings to lower flags for McCain.

"Mr. President, this is not true. You were angry that DHS notified federal buildings to lower the flags for Sen. McCain. I would know because your staff called and told me," Taylor wrote.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, slammed Mr. Trump for his alleged comments. Biden said in a speech on Friday that if the reports are true, "it's disgusting, and it affirms what most of us believe to be true: that Donald Trump is not fit to do the job of president, to be the commander in chief."

The report by The Atlantic also says that Mr. Trump referred to the late President George H.W. Bush as a "loser" for being shot down by the Japanese as a Navy pilot during World War II.

According to the report, Mr. Trump questioned the military service of Robert Kelly, the deceased son of former Homeland Security secretary and White House chief of staff John Kelly. The report says that during a visit to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in 2017, Mr. Trump turned to Kelly while standing in front of his son's grave and said, "I don't get it. What was in it for them?" Goldberg wrote, that Kelly "initially believed, people close to him said, that Trump was making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America's all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices."

Kelly declined to comment to The Atlantic has not yet spoken publicly about the report.

White House communications director Alyssa Farah emphatically denied the report, calling it "offensive and patently false."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.