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President accused of being ‘blind’ to duty

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — The Atlantic magazine has stirred up a hornet’s nest with an article quoting unidentified White House insiders testifying to scurrilous remarks by Donald Trump about former members of the American military, including many dead and buried in cemeteries at home and abroad.

The author, Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, reported that most informants spoke on the condition of anonymity. They testified to Trump’s disrespect and even contempt for Americans in their county’s uniform, labeling many as “losers” or “suckers” for choosing military life over money-making as he has done.

The article goes back to Trump’s comments on U.S. engagements in the two world wars and subsequent combat in the Middle East as reported by observers, indicating his ignorance of the history and his dismissal of the American sacrifices made.

It tells of Trump going to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2017 with then White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly at the grave of his son, Marine Lt. Robert Kelly, killed in Afghanistan in 2010. The president reportedly said: “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

In 2018, Trump is said to have balked at going to the Aisne-Marne Cemetery near Paris, at which 2,289 Americans are buried who were killed in World War I, because bad weather barred use of his helicopter. Trump allegedly asked: “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” He also reportedly called the 1,800 Marines who died at the nearby Belleau Wood “suckers” and asked who were the “good guys in this war” and why the Americans were on the Allied side.

Also, at a 2018 White House planning meeting for a military parade, he was said to have wanted no wounded troops included because “Nobody wants to see that.”

This year, the article noted, former defense secretary Marine Gen. James Mattis objected to other military leaders standing alongside Trump as he held aloft bible at a staged photo op outside the Church of the Presidents on Lafayette Square across from the White House.

The Atlantic editor wrote that his sources chose not to invite harassment or other forms of public or private threat in the current climate of political division, derision and hate. But others have also anonymously told other major outlets, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CNN, of similar Trump venomous outbursts against the military.

Blind quotes have long been the bread and butter of American journalism, and in most newsrooms the unwritten first rule is to get the story with attribution. The second is to get the story with the best possible attribution, and the third is sometimes even to do without it.

Newsgathering has always been a cut-throat business against deadline pressure, and that is true much more so now in the era of the internet. Sometimes the public interest requires that citizens with derogatory information about public figures come forward regardless of personal consequences.

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” show Sunday, Carl Bernstein of the Watergate saga noted that many of the stories that he and Bob Woodward broke at the Washington Post were based on anonymous sources. They proved to be in the public interest in driving Richard Nixon from the Oval Office. Woodward has built a reputation for credibility, and his soon-to-be published next book on Trump, titled “Rage,” is anticipated for inclusion of more similarly damaging blind quotes.

The multiple accounts of Trump’s disdainful comments about military men and women who have given or risked their lives have demonstrated this president’s abysmal self-absorption. Together, they give more credence to the blind quotes that might otherwise be easily dismissed.

Trump’s own recorded utterances about military heroes have left no doubt about his contempt for service, volunteered or otherwise. He said of the late Sen John McCain, a severely wounded five-year prisoner of war in North Vietnam after his Navy fighter plane was shot down: “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” He also castigated President George H.W. Bush, another Navy fighter pilot shot down in World War II, though rescued at sea.

This shameful record lends credence to the Atlantic’s reporting. As a proven serial liar, the president has little moral claim to a generous hearing from a public he has obliged to endure his slanders and deceit for so long. Nonetheless, in the public interest, the sources quoted anonymously in the Atlantic blockbuster should come forward and publicly confirm the story.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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