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.