Analysis: Here’s the problem for Donald Trump with the Atlantic story

The report immediately became a massive story, with Democrats — including Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden — rushing to condemn Trump for his alleged behavior and the White House rallying an aggressive pushback against the article, including the President himself.

“To think that I would make statements negative to our military when nobody has done what I’ve done, with the budgets and the military budget,” Trump said Thursday night after returning from a campaign rally in Pennsylvania. “We’re getting pay raises for the military. It is a disgraceful situation, by a magazine that is a terrible magazine, I don’t read it.”

On Friday morning, Trump took his defense to Twitter. “The Atlantic Magazine is dying, like most magazines, so they make up a fake story in order to gain some relevance,” he wrote. “Story already refuted, but this is what we are up against. Just like the Fake Dossier. You fight and and fight, and then people realize it was a total fraud!”

National security adviser Robert O’Brien was called in to serve as a character witness for Trump, telling reporters, “You’re not going to find anybody who’s more sympathetic to their situation than the President.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News he never heard the President use the language described in the article.

Jeffrey Goldberg, who authored The Atlantic piece, stood by his reporting in an appearance on CNN’s “New Day” Friday morning.

“I stand by my reporting,” he said. “I have multiple sources telling me this is what happened, and so I stand by it.”

So, we’re left with this dilemma: Goldberg insists the story is true. Trump insists the story is false. Both of those views can’t be right.

Now, I am not in a position to litigate who is right here. And CNN has not independently verified The Atlantic’s reporting. But Trump’s insistence that he would never say anything disparaging about a military veteran or the military more generally is belied by, well, facts.

In 2015, shortly after he had officially entered the 2016 Republican presidential race, Trump said this of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain: “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain was shot down and kept captive by the North Vietnamese for more than five years. The wounds he suffered as a result of the torture he endured during his captivity left him unable to raise his arms over his head — among other maladies — for the rest of his life.
In the wake of Gold Star father Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 — in which Khan suggested Trump had never sacrificed anything in life — the billionaire businessman suggested that Hillary Clinton’s speechwriters had actually written the speech and that Khan’s wife, who stood silently by her husband, was not allowed to speak. As for Khan’s claim that Trump had never sacrificed, the Republican nominee responded this way: “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures.”
Following the death of US Army Sgt. La David Johnson in Niger in 2017, the slain soldier’s wife (and a Florida Democratic congresswoman) said that Trump had told her on a phone call that her husband “knew what he had signed up for.” Trump denied the claim.
Last fall, Trump referred to his former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a highly decorated Marine, as “the world’s most overrated general.”
While campaigning in Iowa in November 2015, Trump said, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”
There’s more — much more — but you get the idea. Trump has in the past been willing to critique military veterans as well as prisoners of war.

Now, that is not proof — at all! — that he said and did what The Atlantic piece alleges. But the context here is not favorable for Trump.

Had this report come out about, say George W. Bush or Barack Obama, and they had denied it forcefully — as Trump has — it would be a near-certainty that most people (and the media) would accept that the story was just flat wrong. Because there was no indication in any of their past behavior that would indicate they might ever utter such sentiments about the military.

That’s simply not the case with Trump. And that fact complicates his defense of himself against The Atlantic in a major way.

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