WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump moved swiftly in the last few hours to counter The Atlantic's report that he referred to dead American soldiers as "losers" and "suckers" because it has the power to damage his re-election campaign.
"All they are trying to do is influence a presidential campaign," Trump said from under the wing of Air Force One on Thursday night in a rare late-evening tarmac statement to reporters. "We are going to win and they are going crazy."
If he weren't worried, however, he'd have no need to address the reporting.
"What animal would say such a thing?" he asked as he promised to "swear on anything" that he never referred to fallen soldiers so callously. "Everybody knows it's false."
The story is a threat for two reasons: Trump's own record makes it believable, despite his denials — and it undercuts a broader theme that is crucial to his political narrative.
It's believable because Trump has called so many of his fellow Americans, including military veterans, suckers, losers and the like. The story challenges Trump's political narrative that he is a winning deal-maker who is so infuriated by the sacrifices Americans have been forced to make — in misbegotten wars and bad trade deals — that he gave up his own comfortable lifestyle to stand in and fight on their behalf. In this telling, they are good people who deserve a selfless champion like him.
Giving up his private life netted Trump the most powerful office in the world. He characterizes that as sacrifice, but the personal payoff was huge.
If it's true that Trump believes people who sacrifice the most for causes greater than themselves — soldiers who laid down their lives — are losers, what does he think of the many hardworking American doctors and nurses who rushed into hospitals to treat coronavirus victims? What does he think of the police officers whose public service he commends so often? What does he think of farmers who kept putting on "Make America Great Again" hats when his trade war with China squeezed their profits and forced the government to give them subsidies to continue operating?
Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and Harvard graduate who served in a Marine infantry battalion during the Iraq war, said Trump simply doesn't get the concept of sacrifice for the greater good.
"The man has no honor, and can never understand the millions of men and women that serve with honor for their country," Gallego told NBC News. "I served with and buried men that even in a thousand lifetimes Trump couldn't come close to matching their honor, courage and commitment."
During the Democratic National Convention two weeks ago, Joe Biden cast himself as empathetic and Trump as lacking compassion for what he describes as the "backbone" of America — loosely defined as working- and middle-class families who haven't shared in the economic recovery that Wall Street has seen. Last week, at the Republican National Convention, speaker after speaker offered testimonials about a compassionate side of Trump that few see.
"I was once told that the only way I would be reunited with my family would be as a corpse,” Alice Johnson, whose drug trafficking sentence was commuted by Trump in 2018, said at the GOP convention. "But through the grace of God and the love and compassion of President Donald John Trump, I stand before you tonight and I assure you, I am not a ghost. I am alive, I am whole and most importantly, I am free."
Trump granted Johnson a full pardon the day after the convention.
Both parties clearly believe his compassion is on the ballot.
That's why it was so critical for him to push back fast, hard and repeatedly against the losers-and-suckers storyline. While Trump has said it wasn't true that he used those words to describe soldiers who died in France in World War I, his focus, and that of White House aides, has been to discredit the story by shooting holes in other parts of it. Even fighting over the words themselves creates an echo of them that is politically perilous for the president.
"It was smart of Trump and the campaign to jump in to try and debunk this story because ignoring it could be very damaging to his re-election campaign with voters across the board," said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who helped shepherd Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch through Senate confirmation hearings for the White House.
This is a problem of his own making. Trump defines himself as a winner. Anyone else who is with him at any given moment gets to wear that label, too. But anyone who criticizes him or leaves his circle is suddenly his enemy. There is no middle ground, no room for a civil understanding of differences. His attacks on veterans with distinguished records of service are prolific.
Jim Mattis, Trump's first defense secretary and a retired four-star Marine Corps general, was "the world's most overrated general" in Trump's estimation. John Kelly, another retired four-star Marine Corps general who served as Trump's chief of staff, can't "keep his mouth shut" and was in "way over his head," Trump said. John McCain, a fellow Republican who tangled with Trump politically, was deemed a loser for being captured during the Vietnam War.
As polling shows Trump has already lost serious ground with active-duty service members, a fight over whether he thinks their fallen compatriots are suckers and losers isn't just dangerous for his standing with them and their families. More broadly, it shines a brighter light on Biden's effort to cast him as failing to understand the selfless sacrifices millions of Americans make for their communities and their countrymen every day.