Sep 8, 2020

Trump's comments about U.S. troops.

Trump's comments about U.S. troops.

Plus, a question about campaigning on fear.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum. You can read Tangle for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

The bombshell story in The Atlantic, a question about running on fear and an important story about state budget cuts.

Supporters at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona. Photo: Gage Skidmore / WikiCommons

Reader feedback.

Joseph from Philadelphia, PA, wrote in about my reporting on the vaccine race. He is currently studying COVID-19 therapeutics and had this to say: "There is zero chance any pharma group outside America will develop the vaccine first. The quantity of different types of vaccines being developed, the quality of the companies behind them, the vetting by the FDA and scientific community combined with the vast funding backed by the federal government — there is just no country that can get there before America. COVAX can only hamstring the distribution of a vaccine developed by American companies to American citizens. Without saying what my personal opinion is on the morality of that decision, I just want to re-contextualize the Trump administration's decision. I felt you missed the mark about COVAX. The administration understands, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the vaccine will be developed in America and are specifically choosing not to collaborate with other countries."

Quick hits.

  1. Voting in the 2020 presidential election has begun. On Friday, North Carolina counties began mailing ballots to voters two months ahead of the election. According to pollster John Couvillon, 112 voted, 80 ballots were accepted, 27 were spoiled, and five ballots were duplicates. Other states will follow suit over the coming weeks, and the first in-person voting will be available in Minnesota on September 18th.
  2. Congress is back to work this week and deadlocked on a new stimulus funding bill. Senate Republicans are preparing to pass their own “skinny” version of a coronavirus bill with “$300-per-week federal unemployment payments on top of regular state benefits, another round of funding to aid small and medium-sized businesses, liability protections for businesses, schools and charities, and $105 billion for education, among other provisions.”
  3. A White House adviser in charge of Operation Warp Speed’s vaccine development said it was “extremely unlikely” a COVID-19 vaccine is available by election day, despite CDC guidance for states to be prepared and President Trump insisting the vaccine would probably be ready by October. Dr. Moncef Slaoui said it’s the "the right thing to do" to have states prepare, but also said "there is a very, very low chance that the trials that are running as we speak" will be done by October.
  4. President Trump cut off the anti-racism training being funded by federal agencies, saying the sessions were “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” OMB director Russell Vought directed federal agencies to identify spending related to any training on “critical race theory,” “white privilege” or other teachings that suggest America is “inherently racist or evil,” the Associated Press reported.
  5. Protests in Rochester, New York, continued throughout the weekend over the death of Daniel Prude. “Prude died in March of asphyxiation after Rochester police officers trying to take him into protective custody pinned him to the ground while restraining him,” the Democrat and Chronicle reported. “Video of that interaction was released earlier this week, prompting the protests.”

What D.C. is talking about.

President Trump’s comments about the troops. On Thursday, The Atlantic published an article alleging that the president repeatedly disparaged U.S. troops who were captured, wounded or killed in action. The details of the stories, which were written based on four anonymous sources, set Washington D.C. on fire. In one story, Trump allegedly canceled a visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Paris because he was worried about his hair being disheveled in the rain (Trump told the press he wasn’t going because “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there).

The Atlantic reported that “four people with firsthand knowledge” of the president’s thinking said he “did not believe it important to honor American war dead.” In a meeting, The Atlantic alleges, Trump said to senior staff: “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation, the president called 1,800 marines killed at Belleau Wood, a battle in 1918 that slowed a German advance, “suckers” for getting killed, The Atlantic reported. It also said the president did not want amputees present for an event on wounded veterans: “Nobody wants to see that,” he’s alleged to have said.

Other details of the story allege that Trump was infuriated that flags were flying half-mast for John McCain, a veteran who survived torture, saying “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral.” He also allegedly “referred to former President George H. W. Bush as a ‘loser’ for being shot down by the Japanese” and, while visiting the cemetery where his former Chief of Staff John Kelly’s son is buried, turned to Kelly and asked: “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

Immediately after being published, the story set off a firestorm. Trump vehemently denied the content of the story, saying "If people really exist that would have said that, they're lowlifes and they're liars. And I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more.” On Twitter, he accused Lauren Powell Jobs, who owns a company with a majority stake in The Atlantic, of spewing fake news and hate. He attacked Jeffrey Goldberg, the author behind the story, for his past contributions to Democrats.

The White House’s feverish response to the story, and the nonstop coverage of it, show just how important both sides consider the story to be. Denigrating American troops could cost Trump dearly with some of his supporters. A recent Military Times poll showed 49.9% of active-duty troops already had an unfavorable view of the president, compared to 38% who had a favorable view. 41.3% said they’d vote for Joe Biden, while 37.4% said they’d vote for Trump and 12.8% said they’d vote third party. There are 18.2 million veterans in the U.S., and several military bases populated by military families are also in swing states that are crucial to the 2020 election.

What the right is saying.

There is a lot of skepticism. Fox News reported on the contents of The Atlantic story and said it had two sources who denied the president canceled the trip because of disdain for soldiers or worries about his hair — both sources said the weather complicated things. John Bolton, the president’s former national security advisor who has been openly critical of him since leaving the administration, said the reports in The Atlantic were not true. "According to what that article said, the president made disparaging remarks about soldiers and people buried in the cemetery in connection with the decision for him not to go to the ceremony that was planned that afternoon, and that was simply false," Bolton said. He explained poor weather posed unacceptable risks for POTUS to visit — either a dangerous helicopter flight or a motorcade that could not get in and out of France quickly enough in case of emergency.

But Fox News did confirm some of the reporting: it said the president could have driven to the cemetery, as other world leaders did, but was in a foul mood and questioned the need to visit two cemeteries during the trip. A former official also told Fox News Trump had called anyone who went to Vietnam a “sucker” and did once ask “What’s in it for them? They don’t make any money?” about soldiers while visiting Arlington Cemetery.

The Daily Wire, a conservative digital news publication, counted at least 10 witnesses that categorically denied the reports, including John Bolton. “I was with the president the morning after the scheduled visit,” Derek Lyons, staff secretary to the president, said. “He was extremely disappointed that arrangements could not be made to get him to the site and that the trip had been canceled... In all my time at the White House. I have never heard him utter a disparaging remark of any kind about our troops. In my view, he holds the brave men and women of our armed forces in the highest regard.”

The Daily Caller reported that Lauren Powell Jobs, the billionaire philanthropist and widow of Steve Jobs, is a majority owner of the Atlantic, has donated $1.2 million to Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates and groups since 2019, and communicates often with Jeffrey Goldberg, the author behind the piece. Breitbart News also ran several stories noting how just hours after the piece was published, a liberal-leaning veterans group already had an advertisement ready to run and Joe Biden had talking points queued up, suggesting coordination between political operatives.

“It took weapons-grade skill to produce a story that, while unprovable, had the ring of truth to those eager to believe it (it “resonates,” said NBC’s Peter Alexander, whether it was true or not) and to make it the dominant story of the news cycle — on a day when the jobs market rebounded and Trump brokered a historic deal between Israel and Muslim-majority Kosovo,” Joel Pollak wrote.

In The National Review, Isaac Schorr said the story was “believable” but “should not have been published.” Schorr says many of the claims are “not even remotely difficult to believe” but the story still needed people to go on the record.

“Trump is on the record trashing Gold Star parents,” Schorr said. “He’s on the record, as Goldberg notes, dismissing McCain’s service and expressing his preference for ‘people who weren’t captured.’ That record makes me lean toward believing that the parts about him trashing McCain are probably true. Other parts are less convincing, however. As Jim Geraghty points out in the Morning Jolt, Trump has done numerous events with wounded veterans during his time in office and has never given off an impression of disgust, and those moments have often been among the most humanizing of his presidency. The dearth of named sources and contrasting background evidence means that anyone who says with 100 percent confidence that all of the incidents described did or did not happen is probably driven by confirmation bias.”

What the left is saying.

It’s knives out for the president. Nobody on the left really doubts Trump would make these remarks, given what so many people have seen him say publicly and what former colleagues say about the president now. On the homepage of The Atlantic right now is a lead op-ed from David Frum, a never-Trump conservative, titled “Everyone Knows It’s True.”

“Amid the clamor, it’s easy to overlook those who are not yelling, those who are keeping silent,” Frum wrote. “Where are the senior officers of the United States armed forces, serving and retired—the men and women who worked most closely on military affairs with President Trump? Has any one of them stepped forward to say, ‘That’s not the man I know’?… The silence is resounding. And when such voices do speak, they typically describe a president utterly lacking in empathy to grieving families, wholly uncomprehending of sacrifice and suffering.”

In The Washington Post, David Ignatius said the “bad marriage” between Trump and the military has simply blown up.

“The quotes were anonymous, but it has been an open secret in Washington that many prominent retired four-stars have regarded Trump with growing horror as he assaulted the traditions of discipline and professionalism that are bedrocks of military life,” Ignatius wrote. “What the military came to understand over the past four years is that, for all Trump’s talk of patriotism, he truly is transactional. Throughout his career, he has always believed that loyalty was for chumps. That’s why New York business executives told me back in early 2016 they had never wanted to do business with him.”

“The military understands their role in a democracy,” Ignatius added. “They have obeyed Trump as their commander in chief, even amid his tirades and insults. And they will continue to do so if he’s reelected. But many of them won’t like it: Trump just isn’t a guy with whom you’d want to share a foxhole.”

Ruth Marcus said that the silence from John Kelly, a four-star general, former Marine and Trump’s former chief of staff, was “deafening” and “devastating” for the president. Kelly’s non-denial of the story in The Atlantic is nearly as good as a public confirmation of the details, and tells us everything we need to know.

“But does anyone beyond the most reflexive Trump supporter really believe that a career Marine, a four-star general, a Gold Star father, would invent such a story — however it managed to make its way to Goldberg?” she asked.

My take.

Sometimes I struggle with whether to cover these stories. Mainly because I don’t know how important they are, and I think actual policy and worldview discussions or debates are more important. But this one just isn’t going away, and since the president and his opponents felt inclined to keep talking about it through the weekend, I decided I should cover it, too.

Cultivating anonymous sources is a tricky business. For most reporters, it takes years and even decades to build a list of people who are so deeply embedded in their respective fields that they can no longer go on the record about whatever it is they are leaking to reporters. And in this White House, anonymous sources have repeatedly used the press to go to war with each other, often leaking policy plans they didn’t like or denigrating a colleague to the media in order to destroy that person’s credibility or influence within the Trump administration. White House reporters lovingly call these battles “palace intrigue,” though I think they’d more appropriately be called “a dysfunctional workplace.”

Confirming reports from anonymous sources is even trickier than effectively using anonymous sources without outing them. Take this story: it was confirmed over the weekend by the Associated Press, The Washington Post, CNN and, yes, parts of it were confirmed by Fox News. But how does one “confirm” a story leaked by anonymous sources? How do the other reporters know they are not speaking to the same original sources again?

That’s not to say anonymous sourcing can’t be trusted. There are lots of good reasons to stay anonymous, especially in 2020. “The mob” is relentless and vengeful. Some of the sources probably still work in government. Trump is currently sending his supporters after Lauren Powell Jobs, insisting they write and call her and let her know how they feel, and she had nothing at all to do with the reporting on this story — she’s a Biden donor who owns a company that owns a majority stake in The Atlantic. Trump called on the Fox News reporter who confirmed parts of the story to be fired — how’s that for cancel culture? Is it any wonder nobody wants to go on record? What would Trump do if he knew who the actual sources were?

As for the question I’m sure you want me to answer: Did he say it? My answer: Does it matter? I don’t know why this would change how you already feel about the president. He said a nearly identical thing about Sen. John McCain publicly. In Philip Rucker’s book about Trump, he documents Trump telling a room full of military generals: “You’re all losers. You don’t know how to win anymore.” He’s said publicly he knows more than the generals. We all thought the military despised Obama, but even he did not receive the scorn from former military officers that Trump has endured. Retired Adm. Mike Mullen said Trump was “politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.” Retired Gen. James Mattis said Trump was “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.” Retired Gen. John Kelly agreed. These aren’t Democrats or Trump Derangement Syndrome liberals — they’re (mostly) conservative, career military officers.

Several grieving families who interacted with Trump after their children died overseas also said he was forgetful or uncomfortable. Some had very tense interactions with him. Trump publicly went after Gold Star parents whose son died in Iraq because they criticized him at the DNC. Before he was president, Trump used to joke about how avoiding sexually transmitted diseases was his version of Vietnam, a war he avoided. “I feel like a very great and very brave soldier,” he said to Howard Stern in 1996.

This stuff is public. It’s not anonymously sourced — it’s well-documented by authors and historians and in publicly available video evidence and recordings. So, did he say it? I don’t know. I’m sure parts of it are true. In one revealing denial, Zach Fuentes, John Kelly’s former advisor, said The Atlantic story wasn’t true in a statement to Breitbart. Breitbart ran the story as if it were a championing moment for Trump. But in Fuentes statement, there’s a curious line: “I did not hear POTUS call anyone losers when I told him about the weather,” Fuentes said. “Honestly, do you think General Kelly would have stood by and let ANYONE call fallen Marines losers?” And then he said this:

“They are conflating those people from something the day after.”

What happened the day after? It’s not clear. But if the denial is that Trump didn’t say something that day but did say it the day after — is that really a denial? This isn’t going to change any hearts or minds. Some of Trump’s most humanizing moments have, in fact, been his interactions with veterans, including wounded ones, which makes me skeptical of claims he wanted to keep them away from public view. I’m also extremely supportive of Trump’s stated goals to bring troops home from overseas where they aren’t needed and his public criticisms of the financial incentives behind war. Those are two of the things I love most about Trump. Unfortunately, his actions are less encouraging, and he’s clearly someone who is prone to outbursts and foul moods. All that being said, the fact we’re reasonably debating whether the details of The Atlantic article are true at all is perhaps the most damning thing about this whole affair.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Anyone can ask a question. All you have to do is reply to this email and write in. You can reach me anytime that way.

Q: As you've written before, utilizing fear to engage voters is a winning strategy, one that both candidates are using a lot. Was curious about how either campaign pivots from the amount of fear being pumped into this election cycle? Once the election is over and January rolls around, how do either Trump or Biden administrations actually unite Americans again? Or does it give them more political power to continue down this path (which, in my opinion, is dangerous and we're already seeing the violent effects of such rhetoric)?

— Sam, Fairfax, Virginia

Tangle: I really don’t know. First, I do think it’s important to note a distinction here. Both Biden and Trump are running on fear and the idea that the other one is an existential threat to democracy and the country. But Biden is still running a decidedly more positive campaign than Trump is.

Biden’s bread and butter is trying to preach unity — not just more than Trump but more than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And he speaks frequently about the promise of America, the power of coming together and his desire to be a president for Trump supporters, too. Trump and Republicans are running a far more negative campaign, insisting a Biden election means we’re all going to lose our livelihoods and MS-13 gang members will move in next door.

I’m not saying Biden’s tack is a better or even smarter political strategy. In fact, even though I appreciate his rhetoric more, I think it’s worse politically for this moment, given how much rage and fear there already is across the country.

Optimistically, one could imagine both Trump and Biden having an exit strategy here. If Trump wins, he’ll no longer be able to run on the fear of protests and rioting being worse under a Biden administration. He’ll actually have to solve these problems himself. That would probably mean he’d either a) pivot to trying to preach unity or b) just move back to focusing on the economy and immigration. If Biden wins, he would almost certainly move to try to calm the nation — his campaign now is running heavily on rhetoric about bringing the country together. But his popularity is also largely driven by the “I’m not Trump” factor, and I think if he were to win he’ll need to reposition accordingly.

Still, though, that’s optimistic. Trump has shown spurts of being interested in uniting the country, like immediately after he won in 2016 and at times leading up to the 2018 midterms. But he really does not care for it at all. There was a time his advisors were insisting he move to a more unifying message, but it was clearly unnatural for him — and it didn’t take long for him to fall back on declaring everyone who criticized him was an enemy. Even if he wins, he’ll still have midterms and Senate races to campaign on, and policies he’ll want to push (like finishing the border wall or limiting immigration) that require fear to sell to the public.

The best-case scenario in a Trump win is the economy continues to rebound and Trump tries to unite Americans around the improved conditions for low-income people. Again: optimistic, but there is a good argument that a lot of the civil unrest we’re seeing is more about class than race. Is Trump the hero for low wage workers? I doubt it. But he’s also a political creature and could recognize an opportunity to try to bring people together around that.

Biden will almost certainly go the route of appeasing moderates, which still make up a huge part of the country. But I don’t imagine he’ll hold back against the hard-right Republicans, and every time he lambasts them you can bet it’ll be featured in the news and used to drive everyone further apart.

That being said, if you’re interested in healing the divisions in the country and bringing people together, I think there’s good reason to think Biden has a much better shot. On top of resisting the fringe policies of his own party, Biden also has a proven track record of appealing to many subsets of the political world Democrats have struggled to connect with recently: the military, police, moderate Republicans and rural blue-collar workers.

Is there a way out? I honestly don’t know. We seem to be stuck in this cycle. But if there is, I would bet that both Biden and Trump will try to reach for it — if only temporarily — right after the election is over.

A story that matters.

States across the U.S. are continuing to prepare as if another round of coronavirus relief from the federal government isn’t coming. That preparation mostly consists of budget cuts. “Alaska chopped resources for public broadcasting,” The New York Times reported. “New York City gutted a nascent composting program that could have kept tons of food waste out of landfills. New Jersey postponed property-tax relief payments. Prisoners in Florida will continue to swelter in their cells, because plans to air-condition its prisons are on hold. Many states have already cut planned raises for teachers.” And that’s only the beginning: all across the U.S., states and cities are beginning to cut out programs as concern rises that Congress won’t be able to come to terms on another relief package that includes additional funding to keep state governments afloat.


  • 17%. The percentage of active duty military members who felt the president had responded appropriately to reports of Russian bounties on U.S. soldiers, according to a Military Times poll.
  • 74%. The percentage of active duty military members who disagreed with the president’s suggestion that active-duty military personnel should be used to respond to civil unrest in American cities, according to a Military Times poll.
  • 48-46. The favorable-unfavorable rating of Trump’s handling of the military amongst active-duty members of the military, according to a Military Times poll.
  • 52%. The percentage of 18 to 29-year-old Americans living with one or both parents.
  • 47%. The percentage of 18 to 29-year-old Americans who lived with one or both parents in February 2020.
  • 51%. The percentage of Americans who say that “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed” describes America “very” or “somewhat” well.
  • 76%.The percentage of Republicans who say that “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed” describes America “very” or “somewhat” well.
  • 28%. The percentage of Democrats who say that “everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed” describes America “very” or “somewhat” well.
  • 60%. The percentage of Americans who say that “people are free to peacefully protest” describes America “very” or “somewhat” well.
  • 28%. The percentage of Americans who say that the “tone of political debate is respectful” describes America “very” or “somewhat” well.

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Have a nice day.

A Hungarian researcher has won a $1.18 million prize for a gene-based therapy that he says can reactivate the retinas and restore vision for people who are blind. Botond Roska won the Körber Prize for European Science 2020 in Hamburg, Germany, for a therapy that reprograms cells in the eye so they can “perform the work of the light-sensitive receptors needed for human vision.” Clinical tests for blind volunteers are already underway.

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