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The murky facts about Trump’s failure to visit American war dead near Paris

“I have to say, there are a lot of things that Donald Trump has said and done that I find extremely offensive. But one that offends me the most is when he refused, as president, to visit an American cemetery outside of Paris when he was president. Why? He said that those soldiers who gave their lives were, quote — it was his quote — ‘suckers’ and ‘losers.’”

— Biden, remarks in Scranton, Penn. April 16

“I was reminded of what my opponent said in Paris not too long ago. They asked him to go visit American gravesites. He said ‘no.’ He wouldn’t do it. Because they were all ‘suckers’ and ‘losers.’ I’m not making that up.”

— President Biden, remarks in Pittsburgh, April 17

“What I was thinking about when I was standing there was when Trump refused to go up to the memorial for veterans in Paris, and he said they were a bunch of ‘suckers’ and ‘losers.’”

— Biden, remarks to reporters in Avoca, Penn., April 17

Three times last week, President Biden referenced one of the signature controversies of the Trump presidency — whether he refused to visit a cemetery of war dead outside Paris because he thought soldiers who gave their lives in combat were losers and suckers.

The original source for this story was an article in the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg titled: “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’” Goldberg, citing “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day,” reported that Trump canceled a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 because he did not believe it was important to honor American war dead.

“In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, ‘Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,’” Goldberg wrote. “In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood [during World War I] as ‘suckers’ for getting killed.”

Trump, on repeated occasions, vehemently denied this account. During the 2020 campaign, he claimed that 25 people had denied the story on the record — though at best the White House could produce 14 names of people traveling with the president, and most of those people were not present for the relevant conversations or issued carefully parsed statements. An exception was John R. Bolton, then Trump’s national security adviser and later a sharp critic, who said the trip was scrubbed because of weather.

In 2023, however, John F. Kelly, Trump’s White House chief of staff in 2018 — who had previously not commented on the controversy — issued a statement to CNN that Trump “rants that our most precious heroes who gave their lives in America’s defense are ‘losers’ and wouldn’t visit their graves in France.”

Absent a recording, there’s no way to definitively confirm the story. (The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.) But here’s a guide for readers to make their own assessment.

John F. Kelly: He was Trump’s chief of staff and so is a credible source. Note, however, that his statement is carefully worded and does not directly say Trump refused to visit the graves because he thought they were losers. He says Trump thinks war dead are losers and he did not want to go to the cemetery. Both could be true — but not connected.

John R. Bolton: He was national security adviser and is also a credible source. His defense of Trump is significant because he wrote a book, “The Room Where It Happened,” that depicts the president in highly unflattering terms. He wrote that Trump was “displeased throughout the trip” and quoted then-White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders as saying Trump was in a “royal funk.” (The trip came right after the midterm elections that cost Republicans control of the House of Representatives.)

In a telephone interview, Bolton said “I don’t doubt that Trump didn’t want to go.” But he said that the Marine pilots who fly the presidential helicopter Marine One announced that the weather was so bad that it would not be safe to use it. Traveling by road to the cemetery 50 miles northeast of Paris was estimated to take 90 to 120 minutes. “We went round and round” about whether to make the trip, as other world leaders — such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron — were traveling by car. But, as Bolton put it, “they don’t carry a nuclear football.” While Trump could have overruled the pilots, he said that would have been unusual.

Bolton noted that Trump the next day did make remarks commemorating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice at another World War I cemetery just outside of Paris, the Suresnes American Cemetery — an event that had been previously scheduled. “Here on the revered grounds of Suresnes American Cemetery lie more than 1,500 U.S. service members who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War,” Trump said.

Beside the Atlantic, other news organizations reported that administration officials — provided anonymity to speak freely — said that Trump did not want to visit the cemetery.

Jennifer Griffin of Fox News: “Source: ‘The President was not in a good mood. Macron had said something that made him mad about American reliability and the need perhaps for a European army. He questioned why he had to go to two cemeteries. “Why do I have to do two”?’ ”

“When asked IF the President could have driven to the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, this former official said confidently: ‘The President drives a lot. The other world leaders drove to the cemeteries. He just didn’t want to go.’”

Vanity Fair: “One Republican briefed on the internal discussions said the real reason Trump did not want to go was because there would be no tent to stand under. ‘He was worried his hair was going to get messed up in the rain,’ the source said.

We may never settle on the precise reason Trump canceled his planned visit to Aisne-Marne American cemetery. But there are numerous examples of Trump suggesting that he thinks soldiers who were wounded or died in combat were losers. As part of his statement to CNN, Kelly referenced these anecdotes: “A person that thinks those who defend their country in uniform, or are shot down or seriously wounded in combat, or spend years being tortured as POWs are all ‘suckers’ because ‘there is nothing in it for them.’ A person that did not want to be seen in the presence of military amputees because ‘it doesn’t look good for me.’”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): During the 2016 presidential election, Trump derided McCain’s legacy as a war hero, saying of his years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

The Washington Post reported that Trump complained bitterly to Kelly that he didn’t understand why Kelly and others in the military treated McCain, who had been tortured as a POW, with such reverence. “Isn’t he kind of a loser?” Trump asked, according to an unnamed official.

Gen. Mark A. Milley: Goldberg in 2023 reported that Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had arranged for a severely wounded Army captain, Luis Avila, to sing at his welcome ceremony. “To Milley, and to four-star generals across the Army, Avila and his wife, Claudia, represented the heroism, sacrifice, and dignity of wounded soldiers. It had rained that day, and the ground was soft; at one point Avila’s wheelchair threatened to topple over. Milley’s wife, Holly­anne, ran to help Avila, as did Vice President Mike Pence. After Avila’s performance, Trump walked over to congratulate him, but then said to Milley, within earshot of several witnesses, ‘Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded.’ Never let Avila appear in public again, Trump told Milley.”

Veterans: Griffin reported, via an anonymous source, that Trump was puzzled why people went into military service: “What’s in it for them? They don’t make any money.” The official added: “It was a character flaw of the President. He could not understand why someone would die for their country, not worth it.”

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This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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