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Uproar over Trump slurs on soldiers

President faces crisis that could undercut military support for his re-election campaign
Donald Trump

Peter Baker, Maggie Haberman   |   Washington   |   Published 06.09.20, 01:04 AM

President Trump confronted a political crisis on Friday that could undercut badly needed support in the military community for his re-election campaign as he sought to dispute a report that he privately referred to American soldiers killed in combat as “losers” and “suckers”.

Trump, who has long portrayed himself as a champion of the armed forces and has boasted of rebuilding a military depleted after years of overseas wars, came under intense fire from Democrats and other opponents who said a report in The Atlantic demonstrated his actual contempt for those who serve their country in uniform.

The President’s foes organised conference calls, blasted out statements, flocked to television studios and quickly posted advertising online calling attention to the reported comments. At a news conference, former Vice-President Joseph R. Biden Jr, the Democratic presidential nominee, grew emotional as he said that his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, “wasn’t a sucker” for serving in the army in Iraq.

“How would you feel if you had a kid in Afghanistan right now?” Biden said. “How would you feel if you lost a son, daughter, husband, wife? How would you feel, for real?”

Biden called the reported comments “disgusting”, “sick”, “deplorable”, “un-American” and “absolutely damnable”, adding that he was closer to losing his temper than at any point during the campaign. “I’ve just never been as disappointed in my whole career with a leader that I’ve worked with, President or otherwise.”

Trump denied that he made the remarks repeatedly over the course of the day and rallied current and former aides who backed him up on the record. “It’s a fake story and it’s a disgrace that they’re allowed to do it,” he told reporters in the Oval Office, insisting that he respected the troops. “To me, they’re heroes,” he said. “It’s even hard to believe how they could do it. And I say that, the level of bravery, and to me, they’re absolute heroes.”

But he railed against one former military officer, John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who served as his White House chief of staff at the time of the reported episode and whom he seemed to blame for the article. “Didn’t do a good job, had no temperament and ultimately he was petered out,” Trump said when asked about Kelly on Friday evening. “He was exhausted. This man was totally exhausted. He wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months.”

The furore came at a time of rising tension between the commander in chief and the military leadership over his use of troops against protesters on American streets.

 A new poll by The Military Times showed Biden leading Trump with 41 per cent to 37 per cent among active-duty troops, a stark departure from the military’s longstanding support for Republicans and a danger sign for the President.

Recognising that, the President sought to smooth over friction with some in the military by abruptly reversing course on Friday afternoon and announcing that his administration would not be closing Stars and Stripes, the venerable military newspaper, by the end of the month after all.

While current and former officials contacted on Friday could not confirm some of the specifics in The Atlantic’s account, they did verify that Trump resisted supporting an official funeral and lowering flags after the death of Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam War hero whose military service he had disparaged.

New York Times News Service

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