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The Atlantic Plays the He Said She Said Game

Ever since Trump came down the escalator in 2015, American politics has moved at a break neck pace.  Just as one news story seems to settle down, another takes its place in a never ending cycle of frustration and accusations and counter-accusations.  Even the biggest political junkies have found themselves gasping for air and looking for a few moments of quiet and respite from it all. 

Alas, such a lull in the action is not forthcoming.

But even in this environment a story occasionally comes along that stands out from the rest.  It garners extra attention and raises more hackles than usual on both sides.  Just such a story hit Thursday afternoon when Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic launched a piece full of sensational accusations against President Trump.  The piece can be found here.

The accusations themselves go back to the President’s 2018 trip to France.  On that trip, the President was forced to cancel a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne Cemetery that sits at the foot of Belleau Wood.  It was at the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918 that United States Marines successfully assaulted a previously thought impregnable German fortification and earned the nickname “Devil Dogs” that members of the Corps proudly go by to this day.  It is at this Cemetery that many of the Marines who fell in this engagement were laid to rest.

At the time, the story was that the President’s trip was called off because of heavy rains that made the helicopter flight unsafe.  Furthermore, the Secret Service refused to allow the President to be driven there as an alternative. 

This Atlantic Article alleges that the rain did indeed play a role in this episode, but in a different way.  It claims that the President was fearful of his hair becoming disheveled in the weather.  This article then goes on to claim that, in discussions with his aids, Trump openly asked, “Why should I go to that cemetery?”  The reason he gave for it this was that, “It’s full of losers.”  Furthermore, the article claims that Trump genuinely asked who the good guys were in World War I and expressed confusion as to why America would have come to the aid of the Allies at all.

The accusations in this article are enough to raise skepticism.  However, the real kicker is that the source for these quotes are four unnamed people with first hand knowledge of the discussion that day.  That’s right.  The sources for this are completely anonymous.  Yet this article is presented for public consideration at a time when we have a Presidential election less than two months away.  This point needs to be emphasized.  This article alleges serious disrespect on the part of a President, who is up for reelection, toward our troops.  And it does so without naming the sources.

The article doesn’t stop there though.  It goes on to cite this as a pattern of behavior by the President stemming from his campaign to the present.  In the article, Goldberg writes of an episode at Arlington National Cemetery where the President visited the grave of his former Chief-of Staff John Kelley’s son.  While there, the article contends, Trump openly asked why anyone would lay down his life for his country.  As if it was something he, personally, could not comprehend.  This story, too, came from an anonymous source. 

Throughout the article, Goldberg relies heavily on the President’s well-known feud with since deceased Senator John McCain.  Of course, it is well known that, while on the campaign trail, Trump openly mocked McCain’s war service and his status as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  Goldberg writes, “Trump’s understanding of heroism has not evolved since he became President.  According to sources with knowledge of the President’s views, he seems to genuinely not understand why Americans treat former prisoners of war with respect.”

Likewise, on Thursday, James LaPorta of the Associated Press, claims to have spoken with a senior defense department official who “confirmed this story by Goldberg in its entirety.”  Again, the sourcing is anonymous.

Both President Trump and his allies have come out in force denying the accusations in The Atlantic’s article.  Returning from a campaign event in Pennsylvania, an upset Trump said, “I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes.  There’s nobody that respects them more.”

In the article, Goldberg quotes an email received from Alyssa Farah, a White House Spokesperson, in which these stories of his trip to France are denied.  “This report is false.  President Trump holds the military in the highest regard.  He’s demonstrated his commitment to them at every turn: delivering on his promise to give our troops a much needed pay raise, increasing military spending, signing critical veteran’s reforms, and supporting military spouses.  This has no basis in fact.”

Responding via Twitter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the President’s former Press Secretary, said, “The Atlantic story on @realdonaldtrump is total BS.  I was actually there and one of the people part of the discussion.  This never happened.”

Dan Scavino, who is currently the White House Deputy Chief-of-Staff for communications, Tweeted out, “I was with POTUS in France, with Sarah, and have been at his side throughout it all.  Complete lies by ‘anonymous sources’ that were dropped just as he begins to campaign (and surge).”

Hogan Gidley, former Deputy White House Press Secretary, “I was there in Paris and the President never said those things.  In fact, he would never even think such vile thoughts because I know from firsthand knowledge that President Trump absolutely loves, respects, and reveres the brave men and women of the United States Military.”

It is also worth noting that former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, was present for the events in France and writes of that trip in his book “The Room Where It Happened.”  His version of events does not line up with those that Goldberg relates in his Atlantic piece.  This is an important point since Bolton left the White House under less than ideal circumstances and, at best, can be described as a disgruntled former employee.  In his book, he never misses a chance to cast the President and others White House officials in a negative light.  It is unlikely that Bolton would leave such negative things out of his book when the rest of the work seems to be an attempted smear job against the President.

Essentially, what this story comes down to is accusations of boorish behavior and comments from the President being levelled by four unnamed sources and a denial of those accusations by those close to the President who are not afraid of being identified.

Is there any other way we can gauge the veracity of these accounts?  Well, we can take a look at the author himself.

Jeffry Goldberg is a veteran reporter who has written for The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times before landing at the Atlantic.  Politically, it is difficult to identify him.  He has been described as both a liberal and a neoconservative, a Zionist and Critic of Israel.  However, in 2016 The New York Times reported that he is the one who shaped their endorsement of Hillary Clinton.  So, while it’s certainly possible that he is writing strictly from a journalist’s interest in reporting the news, it is also possible he has a bit of an interest in shaping the narrative as well.

Essentially, what we see in this article is a bunch of accusations for the sake of accusations. 

However, I’m inclined toward disbelief in this case.  I have several reasons for this.  First, if this happened in 2018, then we would have heard about it…in 2018.  In our current political climate of extreme polarization, I cannot fathom anyone sitting on this information for two years.  Especially when there were so many opportune moments to utilize it during that time.  The debate over impeachment being just one.

Secondly, there is the timing.  We are two months away from an election and the President’s opponent for that election, Joe Biden, appears to need all the help he can get.  See here.  Furthermore, one of the most prominent Democrat figures in the country, Nancy Pelosi, has found herself mired in a political scandal in which she demonstrated that she thinks she is above the laws that we the little people must live by.  In addition, polling data continues to come out showing that the recent riots in many of America’s cities are reflecting badly on the Democratic Party as are mask mandates.  And to cap it all off, the economy is improving faster than expected.

The timing of these accusations are extremely suspect and show that there is probably some political bias on the part of Mr. Goldberg or his anonymous sources.

Finally, while Trump has demonstrated in the past that he is capable of such crude language and disrespect, such things would be more characteristic of Private Citizen Trump or Candidate Trump from four years ago.  President Trump, on the other hand, has been more disciplined in this regard and has, as the White House email from Alyssa Farah indicated, been respectful of our serviceman.  “But what about John McCain?” some might say.  And that may be a good point.  Except John McCain himself was openly hostile to the President and even cast Senate votes out of that spite.  In other words, McCain can be counted as an exception, not the rule.

With all of that said, there is one huge caveat that must be tagged on the end.  While my inclination is to regard these accusations as a lie. The fact is, any lie, in order to be a good lie, must have an element of truth to it.  It has to be believable.  The President’s past pettiness, outbursts, immature behavior, and attacks on John McCain’s war service all lend such believability to this piece.  If this piece had been written about George W. Bush of Barack Obama, it would have never seen the light of day.  Because those two did not have an established history of the type of personality flaws that make it believable.  Trump does.  And he only has himself to blame for that.

I’m not old.  But I am old enough to remember the 2004 election when CBS anchor Dan Rather presented documents proving that George W. Bush had failed to appear for his National Guard service in the 1970’s.  This happened roughly two months before that year’s November elections in which Bush was running for reelection against John Kerry.  The Bush campaign quickly presented evidence that he did indeed report for duty and several experts identified the Rather documents as forgeries.  After a bit of back and forth, Dan Rather resigned in disgrace and it’s generally agreed that he and his team deliberately bypassed normal journalistic standards in an attempt to influence an election.  There may not be any resignations this time around, but it is my suspicion that this “news” story is more an attempt to make the news than it is to report the news.

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