Adrift Over The Atlantic: How The President and The Press Destroyed The Ability Of The Public To Judge Scandals

Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the recent controversy surrounding The Atlantic article on alleged comments by President Donald Trump disparaging veterans and war dead buried at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. I have been highly critical of President Trump response, particularly his calling for the firing of a Fox reporter for confirming elements of the story.  In truth, Fox did not confirm that Trump called the dead buried at the French cemetery “losers” and “suckers.” Indeed, Fox reporter Jennifer Griffin said today that her source did not hear those references to those buried at the cemetery.  However, there are sources that have said that Trump used such terms to describe Vietnam veterans. Conversely, in an interview with CNN, the author of the article Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg was confronted by strong rebuttals by various officials over the assertion that the cancellation of the Trump visit was due to his concern over his hair or a disparaging view of the fallen.  When asked about documents and witnesses suggesting that the cancellation was weather related as claimed, Goldberg simply seemed to shrug and say that those accounts might be true but that Trump still holds disrespectful views of veterans.  That was hardly a resounding defense of those elements of his article. Moreover, when the evidence was presented that the helicopter was grounded, Goldberg noted that the grounding is insulting to Marines who said that they can fly in any weather. However, again, that is not what the story said and it was the military that objected to flying (the issue was not that the helicopter could not fly but that it would have to fly too low for the safety of the President). The problem for many in the public is that we have lost any presumption that either the president or the press is a reliable source in such controversies. Indeed, according to polls, a majority find both untrustworthy. This is where the cost of such eroded trust are the highest. After years of lying or bias, both sides have left the public with no credible basis to know the truth in a major scandal.

Here is the column:

Until this week, the most famous quote related to World War I’s Battle of Belleau Wood was U.S. Marine Capt. Lloyd Williams’ declaration to a French commander: “Retreat, hell! We just got here.” Now, a more famous quote could well become President Trump’s alleged description of the battle’s fallen Americans as “losers.”

Like the war itself, today’s political battle is between entrenched forces — Trump and Republicans on one side, Democrats and the media on the other. In the middle are the rest of us. The lack of movement by public opinion may not reflect an even split of support but, rather, a widespread view of both sides as equally unbelievable.

This latest controversy was triggered by an Atlantic article written by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. The article alleges damaging statements by Trump, such as dismissing the dead buried at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery as “losers” and “suckers.” What is most striking about this story is that, ordinarily, it would be entirely unbelievable. What person, let alone an American president, would refer to brave Americans in such terms?

The problem is, Trump has made a long line of such unbelievable comments and then lied about them. Indeed, in denying this latest story, he insisted “I never called John [McCain] a loser.” Yet, in 2015, he indeed did say of McCain, a former prisoner of war, “I like people who weren’t captured,” and later referred to the former Republican presidential nominee with “I don’t like losers.”

He later retweeted a headline: “Donald Trump: John McCain Is ‘A Loser.’ ” A Fox News reporter said that her own sources confirmed that Trump disparaged veterans and did not want to drive to the cemetery. Trump has reached a point where there is nothing that most of us would rule out in terms of shocking or offensive statements. He often refers to people as “losers” and allegedly once said that of those who fought in Vietnam instead of getting a deferment or medical exclusion, as he did.

If an article included such an alleged statement by either President Bush, it would have been dismissed instantly as ridiculous. Over the past three years Trump has made himself vulnerable to such allegations, due to his history of outrageous remarks.

Yet the same is true of the media. Three years ago, a story of this kind would have been devastating for any president — but the media has rendered itself as unbelievable as the subject of its current ire. While denouncing Trump as a pathological liar, the media has been pathologically biased. Polls consistently show the media racing Trump to the bottom on trustworthiness. Most of the media now feeds a steady diet of unrelentingly negative stories to a shrinking audience of true believers.

As a result, the media has hit a historic low, with less than half of the populace finding it credible. Some polls show that the only group deemed less trustworthy than Trump is the media. The Knight Foundation has found that three-fourths of the public believe the media is too biased; some 54 percent believe reporters regularly misrepresent facts, and 28 percent believe reporters make things up entirely.

There is a reason for this view of bias: It’s true. Many journalists do not attempt to hide their anti-Trump agendas. In the age of “echo-journalism,” it is even viewed as an essential commitment on some networks. False stories about Trump or Trump aides have been published regularly, only to be quietly withdrawn or “corrected” after the news cycle has run. 

Indeed, as reporters pummeled the White House with angry questions over the Atlantic story, a press conference held by Democratic nominee Joe Biden was the very image of deference and decorum. Reporters seemed to go out of their way to confirm months of criticism over the softball treatment given to Biden. Atlantic staff writer Edward Isaac Dovere asked Biden: “When you hear these remarks — ‘suckers,’ ‘losers,’ recoiling from amputees — what does it tell you about President Trump’s soul and the life he leads?”

There was a time when a statement in a major publication was taken as true. My children, however, have no such presumption about any news source. Even more disturbing, neither do I these days. The Atlantic article embodies the discomfort with movement journalism. It has been the repository of all things anti-Trump, with such articles as “Donald Trump, the Most Unmanly President” and “Donald Trump is a Broken Man.” Past claims in the Atlantic on the Trump campaign, like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions colluding with Russians, were debunked by the special counsel investigation. In an age of echo chamber journalism, The Atlantic is deafening.

The core alleged comment, attributed to unnamed sources, has been denied by a host of officials who were with Trump in France at that time, including figures like former national security adviser John Bolton. The article also states that Trump did not visit the cemetery in part over his concern that the rainy day would mess up his hair, but White House documents show that, as stated at the time, the military notified his staff that the presidential helicopter should be grounded. Bolton has confirmed the weather was the reason and noted that, if this story were true, he would have made it a chapter in his anti-Trump book. Trump might not have wanted to go, but the reason was a bad helicopter day, not a bad hair day.

Other allegations include Trump deriding the death of the son of Gen. John Kelly at his Arlington gravesite. Kelly has not commented on whether Trump expressed disbelief that such men would give their lives for their country: “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” Kelly should now confirm or deny it. Indeed, if true, what many of us do not get is why Kelly would not only ignore such a vile question but continue to serve as Trump’s Homeland Security secretary and, later, as White House chief of staff.

The real story this week is not whether Trump or The Atlantic are lying but why either possibility is viewed as equally plausible. The public is left with an incredible tale told by two equally noncredible sources. That is the real story — and a truly sad one.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.

118 thoughts on “Adrift Over The Atlantic: How The President and The Press Destroyed The Ability Of The Public To Judge Scandals”

  1. John Bolton’s book – written before the Atlantic article – gives the reasons for the cancellation of the cemetery trip as bad weather making it unsafe to fly the president. Bolton said this week that the Atlantic’s claim that Trump disparaged WWII vets is absolutely false. I’d say that the unsourced Atlantic piece has been completely discredited and disproven.

  2. Atlantic used to have good articles years ago. Now it is hopelessly propagandistic anti-Trump garbage.

  3. Jonathan: Between Trump’s almost daily lies (10,000 and counting) and the media’s frequent “false stories” about Trump where can a reader turn for unbiased reporting? Maybe only in your posts or at Fox News? You frequently criticize CNN, the New York Times, Washington Post and now The Atlantic for “lying and bias” in their coverage of Trump. Fox has provided Trump with a platform for his lies and has encouraged him with their own conspiracy theories and “false stories”. But not a word of criticism from you about their coverage.

    Now your ire is focused on Jeffrey Goldberg and his article in The Atlantic that asserts Trump failed to attend the Aisne-Marne American cemetery ceremony in 2018 because of concern for his hair. The White House denied Trump didn’t go because of a bad “hair day” but because of inclement weather that prevented the use of his helicopter. In the press coverage of of the trip neither CNN, the Washington Post nor other major media mentioned “bad hair” as the reason Trump cancelled. No doubt “bad hair” was a later humorous attempt to make fun of Trump’s obsession with his hair. But focusing only on the “bad hair” misses the bigger story.

    The problem is that neither Trump nor the White House has ever credibly explained why Trump did not attend the cemetery event. The commemoration had been planned for months and was the principal reason Trump flew to Paris. Ben Rhodes, national security advisor for Obama said at the time: “I helped plan all of President Obama’s trips for 8 years. There is always a rain option. Always.” We do know other nation leaders did attend including Canada’s Justin Trudeau, German chancellor Angel Merkel and French President Macron. In addition Chief of Staff John Kelly and General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff also managed to attend. Why could they make the trip but Trump couldn’t? Later the White House offered another bizarre explanation. Trump cancelled because he didn’t want to disturb local residents with a parade of vehicles.Trump loves parades especially the military variety where he can be the center of attention. So that can’t be an explanation. I think there’s another key for why Trump refused to attend. It wasn’t because of concern for his hair but the fact he would only one of many world leaders attending the ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American cemetery. Had Trump been the focus of attention no doubt he would have swam across the Sein to get there. It was Trump’s narcissistic ego that stood in the way of honoring the American war dead in WW1. To use your own words: “That is the real story–and a truly sad one”.

  4. Leftist’s crocodile tears. This story is so ridiculous:

    A) So the left has decided that the armed forces have stopped being “baby killers” and no longer deserving of being spat on? When did this change of heart happen on the left, and how long until you shift back? Is flag burning still fashionable, or has it been upgraded to being a faux pas yet?

    B) I guess the account from the renown Trump supporter, John Bolton should simply be ignored–what, because of his obvious pro-Trump bias. His “tell all” book that you’ve been slobbering over affirms the chopper route was canceled due to weather, and the Secret Service could not secure a 90-120 minute (one way) motorcade, or evacuate POTUS in an emergency. You know the book…the one that came out three months ago? Yeah, that one.

    Don’t you understand that your hatred (and possibly, self-loathing) has deranged you and is blinding you to sanity and reason? Emperor Palpatine would love nothing more than for you than for you to let the hate flow through you. “Good. Good!” he would say.

        1. kydave, Bolton never refuted the allegation. He agrees that it is something trump would say and he said if he did hear trump say such a thing he would put it in his book. Overall he made the point that this is something trump is expected to do most of the time.

          1. Behind the story Svelaz. Bolton’s interview yesterday had him saying it didn’t happen.

  5. As of July 9, the tally at the Washington Post of Trump Lies stands at 20,055 claims in 1,267 days.

    Donald Trump, has used four known pseudonyms/ aliases, including “John Barron” (or “John Baron”), “John Miller” and “David Dennison”.
    This is not Mark Twain stuff here, these “pseudDONyms were used to distract and/ or deceive.

    The media has given undue deference to this man because of the title he holds.

    The evidence of Trump’s disdain for the military is out there for anyone who cares to look.
    Traumatic Brain Injuries are headaches. Comments about Admiral McRaven, Lt Col Vidman, McCain, Ghazala and Khizr Kahn…….

    As for unknown sources what is the fate of the people who speak the truth about his actions. Vidman,Vidman’s Brother, William Taylor,
    Marie Yovanovitch, Sally Yates, Jennifer Williams, Andrew McCabe………………..

    Trump backers why has this man used at least four know aliases. waiting for your “whatabouts” and rationalization.

    1. Anon — Wow, 20,055. Impressive. How many time did they count some of the more egregious ones like, “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor,” and the perennial crowd favorite, “[my healthcare plan will] cut the cost of a typical family’s premium by up to $2,500 a year”?

      1. How about ‘Repeal and Replace’, My heath care plan will be big and beautiful unlike anything you’ve ever seen and we’re keeping pre existing conditions now that’s egregious. Is a broken promise a lie? “Who knew Health Care was so complicated”. That ones not a lie just a stupid comment for a clueless fool.

        Many numbers proposed by ACA were conditioned by the insurance mandate. Maybe you remember what happened to that mandate, clue– republicans got rid of it. No doubt Health insurance is WAY to expensive in the United States.

        I’m guessing you think 20,055 lies is “fake news” but did Fox News ever see the need to do a lie count on Obama, not to my knowledge, but I don’t watch the jingoist BS. And while I’m thinking about it when did the term Fake News start spiking in usage, I’m thinking it was some time in 2015 coinciding with Trumps Presidential run. Just a Hypothesis.

  6. “Both sides” are equally guilty? Seriously? In equating Trump with the media, you undermine your own credibility.

  7. To everyone defending Trump. There’s an important lesson the children’s story “the boy who cried wolf” conveys and applies to Trump like a glove. You lie often enough people won’t believe you even if you’re telling the truth.

    Trump lies so much that nothing he says can be taken at face value and given his well recorded pattern of denigrating the military the story has more credibility than Trump and that’s a big problem for the liar in chief.

    The man brought this upon himself. He loves shooting his mouth off and his supporters know this. No reason to complain about the media reporting what Trump may have said. He’s said far more outrageous things. It’s not an impossibility that he actually did say those things. The boy who cried wolf is now getting a taste of his own medicine. His ironic.

    1. To everyone voting for Biden. There’s an important lesson that the children’s story “the boy who cried wolf” conveys and applies to Biden like a glove. You lie often enough people won’t believe you even if you’re telling the truth.

      Biden lies so much that nothing he says can be taken at face value and given his well recorded pattern of flip-flopping, that’s a big problem for a wannabe liar in chief.

      Biden brings this upon himself. He loves shooting his mouth off and his minions know this. No reason to complain about the media reporting what Biden may have said. He’s said far more outrageous things. It’s not an impossibility that he actually doesn’t even remember ever saying things. The boy who cried wolf is now getting a taste of his own medicine. How ironic.

    2. It’s not an impossibility that he actually did say those things. The boy who cried wolf is now getting a taste of his own medicine. His ironic.

      You liberals and the MSM are so stupid it is agonizing to watch.

      Trump created this phony story and leaked it to the press. The press of course eats it up even though the story has already been debunked by Bolton’s book and everybody who was on that trip with Trump to France says it never happened it doesn’t matter they print it anyway.

      That makes it look like the press just made the story up out of thin air. Trump keeps pulling this sh!t on the press and the liberals and they fall for it every single time. Its Amazing

  8. Hillary insulted millions of Americans and encouraged divisive talk with her 1990s “vast right wing conspiracy” paranoia, only to be equaled with her 2015 “basket of deplorables” and echoed by her vast left wing enablers in the MSM

    “No one believes you anymore” – Rick Grennell to White House Press Corps

  9. Must read ——>>>

    “Democrats are laying the groundwork for revolution right in front of our eyes.

    As if 2020 were not insane enough already, we now have Democrats and their ruling class masters openly talking about staging a coup. You might have missed it, what with the riots, lockdowns and other daily mayhem we’re forced to endure in this, the most wretched year of my lifetime. But it’s happening….”

    1. “It started with the military brass quietly indicating that the troops should not follow a presidential order. They were bolstered by many former generals—including President Trump’s own first Secretary of Defense—who stated openly what the brass would only hint at. Then, as nationwide riots really got rolling in early June, the sitting Secretary of Defense himself all but publicly told the president not to invoke the Insurrection Act. His implicit message was: “Mr. President, don’t tell us to do that, because we won’t, and you know what happens after that.”

      All this enthused Joe Biden, who threw subtlety to the winds. The former United States Senator (for 26 years) and Vice President (for eight) has not once, not twice, but thrice confidently asserted that the military will “escort [Trump] from the White House with great dispatch” should the president refuse to leave. Another former Vice President, Al Gore, publicly agreed.”

      1. “One might dismiss such comments as the ravings of a dementia patient and a has-been who never got over his own electoral loss. But before you do, consider also this. Over the summer a story was deliberately leaked to the press of a meeting at which 100 Democratic grandees, anti-Trump former Republicans, and other ruling class apparatchiks got together (on George Soros’s dime) to “game out” various outcomes of the 2020 election. One such outcome was a clear Trump win. In that eventuality, former Bill Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, playing Biden, refused to concede, pressured states that Trump won to send Democrats to the formal Electoral College vote, and trusted that the military would take care of the rest.

        The leaked report from the exercise darkly concluded that “technocratic solutions, courts, and reliance on elites observing norms are not the answer here,” promising that what would follow the November election would be “a street fight, not a legal battle.”

        Two more data points (among several that could be provided). Over the summer, two former Army officers, both prominent in the Democrat-aligned “national security” think tank world, wrote an open letter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in which they urged him to deploy the 82nd Airborne Division to drag President Trump from the Oval Office at precisely 12:01 PM, January 20, 2021.

        About a month later, Hillary Clinton declared publicly that Joe Biden should not concede the election “under any circumstances.” The old English major in me interprets the word “any” to mean “no,” “none,” “nada,” “niente,” “zero,” “zilch” “bupkis”…you get the idea.

        This doesn’t sound like the rhetoric of a political party confident it will win an upcoming election.”

        Read full essay —->>>

  10. The problem the author has is trying to convince us that Trump is no different than the media. He takes two different comments out of context then tries to connect them in order to convict Trump. Sure Trump had issues with McCain but it was McCain who started the problem with his disdain and disparaging comments about Trump. Trump simply responded to McCain. Not in the context of him being a Vet but in a more personal context concerning McCain’s political activities and failures. Trump has NEVER referred to Vets as losers he referred to McCain and questioned the idea that McCain was a “War Hero” when he spent most of the war as a POW with questions concerning his behavior during that time. There are far more people worthy of the Title of “War Hero” than McCain but they have never received the accolaids McCain has used to promote himself.

    Instead of trying to convince us that Trump lies in the same fashion as the media and Democrats by taking comments out of context simply admit the truth. Trump never did anything the Atlantic and or media has accused him of. They lie daily in an attempt to bring down this president whom they praised until he ran for president. Obama and Biden lied daily. Biden actually committed the crime they accused Trump of. Obama used his position to enrich himself and his friends while screwing over the hard working Americans who suffered under his administration. In fact is was the Obama admin that started going after journalists and accusing them of treason.

    Maybe next time just tell the story and stop using it as an excuse to convict Trump of some imaginary offense.

  11. Another group of folks once taken seriously but no more are University professors. The only bunch of losers who are destroying freedom faster than journalists.
    Only politicians call these tenured clowns even as their Ivory tower policies are wrecking our world, and it is because they can’t think of anything original, just power hungry hacks.
    The only people who seem to respect the academic buffoons are the Stockholm Syndrome students held in captive awe with their lives and careers at stake.
    The best of those students forget the nightmare fast, the worst become professors themselves.

  12. On just the facts you present it is clear the Atlantic lied, and Fox lied. There are more facts which prove this the case. No matter how odious Trump May be, it is still important to be truthful and fair. Your “Trump is bad so let’s split the difference” abandons both.

    1. Ken B, explain to us why Fox would lie. Trump essentially owes his presidency to Fox News. For three and a half years, mainstream media has labeled Fox News the ‘State Propaganda’ source for this administration. So for a Trump defender it makes no sense whatsoever to say ‘Fox is lying’.

    2. Ken B — Look up the definition of “lie” to understand why you are wrong.

  13. The atlantic is not even fit for toilet paper. They were all over NPR and joyfully said their brethren at fox even verified this fake news. They can’t let go their collective hate for our president in this election time. journalism is dead…it’s all lying dog pony soldiers of the left.
    The manipulation is so brazen , the lies so BS…yet they have to get their dull knives out anyway like good apparatchiks .

    1. phergus, Trump declared ‘war on the media’ more than 4 years ago. Obviously most journalists would have good reason to hate this president. No journalist worth his credentials is going to stick up for a president who attacks our institutions on a daily basis. No reader or viewer would respect a such a journalist.

  14. Prof. Turley, Thanks for your article. All your articles provide food for thought. You say, “The public are left with an incredible tale told by two noncredible sources.” No Sir, that is not correct. The Atlantic has published the tale fashioned on the comments of four unnamed sources. Pres. Trump denies the claims, as do a number of people who were with him. Jennifer Griffin’s reported unnamed ex white house personnel comments, that Pres. Trump had on occasion used the words, sucker or Loser in relation to a group of Military personnel or an individual who had served in the armed services, is unhelpful at best. The comments certainly don’t add weight to the tale, they have no direct bearing to it.
    Professor it is unhelpful to say that both parties have a lack of credibility. I am sure that you still believe in ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ The evidence so far gleaned is over-whelming favoring Pres Trumps denial.

    1. “ The evidence so far gleaned is over-whelming favoring Pres Trumps denial.”

      Actually the evidence against the president is less than favorable given the multiple instances where the president is on record disparaging military figures and actions.

      General Kelly resigned due to that kind of disrespect trump showed towards the military. He badmouthed decorated veterans for doing their jobs.

      The pattern of denigrating the military and individuals lends credence to the allegations far more than his poor attempts at denial. He’s already been making laughable excuses which doesn’t help him one bit. He’s already well known to be a pathological liar. Turley recognizes that much and points out that Trump has a serious credibility problem.

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