Sometimes the secondary news story is the primary story, the real news. The president is worried and gave in on something he thought would prove he’s strong and wonderful and the best president ever. Prudent presidents, all previous presidents, have done that. They look at the situation. Yes, they could claim that Canada is the real enemy of the United States now, because of some pesky tariff or something. Nope, that’d make that president look like a jerk, so presidents shrug and give in and move on – except Donald Trump never does. He never lets go. He never changes his mind.
And he just did. The New York Times’ Helene Cooper reports this:
President Trump said late Friday that he planned to reverse Pentagon budget cuts that would have permanently closed Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper that has both informed and spoken for American troops over the decades.
Under Defense Department spending plans, the paper would cease print and online publication by Sept. 30, a move seen as expanding the Trump administration’s war on news media to include those paid by the government to cover the military.
Yet, while the demise of Stars and Stripes had been in budget cuts first proposed by Mr. Trump’s Pentagon in February, the president announced the paper would continue to publish.
He had said that this pesky rag was just fake news:
The reversal came as the White House was in full defensive mode over published reports that the president had disparaged American military personnel killed in the nation’s wars. A senior administration official confirmed that Mr. Trump tweeted after aides had showed him news coverage that blamed him for shuttering Stars and Stripes, and so he decided to reverse the Pentagon spending cuts.
Those reports that he had disparaged American military personnel killed in the nation’s wars, that he had called them losers and suckers, for being so stupid to go and get themselves killed, had made him look bad. He has to love the troops, so he had to save this pesky rag with writers who sometimes wondered what the hell he was doing:
Begun during the Civil War, Stripes has more recently frustrated presidents and defense secretaries during the “forever wars” that began after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by elevating the voices of those in uniform who contradicted commanders and political leaders.
But while the newspaper found enough backers in Congress and among retired military officers to keep it alive during previous administrations, that support has been unable to reverse Defense Department plans to zero-out the Stars and Stripes budget during a Trump presidency characterized by continuing battles with journalists.
These people sometimes said he was wrong. That was fake news. He wasn’t going to fund that. But he was alone in that:
A bipartisan group of 11 Democratic and four Republican senators called on the Defense Department to maintain funding for the publication, which has about 1.3 million readers online and in print. In a letter on Wednesday to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, the senators said the Pentagon, with its budget of more than $700 billion, could surely find the $15.5 million in federal funding needed to keep Stars and Stripes going.
“We urge you to take steps to preserve the funding prerogatives of Congress before allowing any such disruption to take place,” said the letter, signed by, among others, Senators Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California; Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois; and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. “Stars and Stripes is an essential part of our nation’s freedom of the press that serves the very population charged with defending that freedom.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, sent a separate letter to Mr. Esper last month on behalf of the publication and cited “strong support” for Stars and Stripes in Congress. “As a veteran who has served overseas, I know the value that the Stars and Stripes brings to its readers,” wrote Mr. Graham, a former Air Force Reserve lawyer who retired as a colonel.
Still, Trump had to nip this in the bud:
Signs of a growing discontent among troops for the commander in chief are starting to show. A Military Times poll released this week showed a continued decline in active-duty service members’ views of Mr. Trump, and a slight but significant preference for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the upcoming election among troops surveyed.
Those in uniform were turning on him. He had to shut down their newspaper. And then his people told him that would only make things worse with these people, and with the general population out there, ready to vote in November. It just looked bad. Don’t do it.
And he agreed. His brand is defiance. He caved. What the hell happened to him? He let this continue:
Stars and Stripes first started as a publication for Union troops during the Civil War, when soldiers commanded by Ulysses S. Grant overran Bloomfield, Mo., en route to Cape Girardeau. Former pressmen were among the troops, and they set up shop at a local newspaper office that had been abandoned by its Confederate-sympathizing publisher.
Since then, the paper has been on newsstands in military “PX” shopping areas and command tents in places like Langres, France, during World War II and Afghanistan and Iraq more recently. It has published cartoons that lampooned commanders, as well as news articles and commentary that are often at odds with the official view from the Pentagon or the White House.
He’ll just have to live with that. He had been getting hammered for what he had said over the last few years, and for what he had done and not done, and for being who he seemed to be, a rather despicable person. Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman tell that tale:
President Trump confronted a political crisis on Friday that could undercut badly needed support in the military community for his re-election campaign as he sought to dispute a report that he privately referred to American soldiers killed in combat as “losers” and “suckers.”
Mr. Trump, who has long portrayed himself as a champion of the armed forces and has boasted of rebuilding a military depleted after years of overseas wars, came under intense fire from Democrats and other opponents who said a report in The Atlantic demonstrated his actual contempt for those who serve their country in uniform.
This was a crisis:
The president’s foes organized conference calls, blasted out statements, flocked to television studios and quickly posted advertising online calling attention to the reported comments. At a news conference, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, grew emotional as he said that his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, “wasn’t a sucker” for serving in the Army in Iraq.
“How would you feel if you had a kid in Afghanistan right now?” Mr. Biden said. “How would you feel if you lost a son, daughter, husband, wife? How would you feel, for real?”
Mr. Biden called the reported comments “disgusting,” “sick,” “deplorable,” “un-American” and “absolutely damnable,” adding that he was closer to losing his temper than at any point during the campaign. “I’ve just never been as disappointed in my whole career with a leader that I’ve worked with, president or otherwise.”
Mr. Trump denied that he made the remarks repeatedly over the course of the day and rallied current and former aides who backed him up on the record.
But now Trump seemed desperate:
He railed against one former military officer, John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who served as his White House chief of staff at the time of the reported episode and whom he seemed to blame for the article. “Didn’t do a good job, had no temperament and ultimately he was petered out,” Mr. Trump said when asked about Mr. Kelly on Friday evening. “He was exhausted. This man was totally exhausted. He wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months.”
So, this retired four-star Marine general was a total wimp and just couldn’t keep up with the total awesomeness of Donald Trump. He shouldn’t have said that. Everyone in the military heard that, and things were bad enough already:
The furor came at a time of rising tension between the commander in chief and the military leadership over his use of troops against protesters on American streets, his refusal to rename bases named for Confederate generals and his clemency for accused and convicted war criminals. A new poll showed Mr. Biden leading Mr. Trump with 41 percent to 37 percent among active-duty troops, a stark departure from the military’s longstanding support for Republicans and a danger sign for the president.
But this is what it is:
While current and former officials contacted on Friday could not confirm some of the specifics in The Atlantic’s account, they did verify that Mr. Trump resisted supporting an official funeral and lowering flags after the death of Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam War hero whose military service he had disparaged. And Mr. Trump’s assertion on Friday that “I never called John a loser” was belied by video and Twitter recording him doing just that in 2015.
Moreover, people familiar with Mr. Trump’s private conversations say he has long scorned those who served in Vietnam as being too dumb to have gotten out of it, as he did through a medical diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels. At other times, according to those familiar with the remarks, Mr. Trump has expressed bewilderment that people choose military service over making money.
Some also recalled him asking why the United States should be so interested in finding captured soldiers, a comment made in the context of Mr. McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Another former official said Mr. Trump often expressed discomfort around people who had been injured…
And just like that, he had lost the military:
The president privately raged about The Atlantic’s article on Friday morning, and advisers were panicked about how to counter it. They feared it was the beginning of a constant drip of negative stories from disenchanted former officials that could sway voters. While Mr. Trump demanded that allies knock down the article, aides recognized that few senior military officers were willing to openly defend the president.
The potential for damage was clear by 9:04 a.m., barely 15 hours after the article was published, when VoteVets, a liberal veterans organization that has long been critical of Mr. Trump, released an online ad featuring the parents of troops slain in Iraq and Afghanistan, each one declaring that their son or stepson was not a “loser” or “sucker.”
He’s written off the Black vote. He’s written off the Hispanic vote. He’s written off the urban vote. He’s lost most of the women’s vote. He’s lost most of the young and the college-educated. And now the military is gone, for good reason:
The report by The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, said that Mr. Trump decided against visiting a cemetery for American soldiers killed in World War I during a 2018 visit to France because the rain would have mussed his hair and because he did not deem it important to honor the war dead.
The article cited “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day,” but did not name them. During a conversation with senior officials that day, according to the magazine, Mr. Trump said: “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” On the same trip, the article said, he referred to American Marines slain in combat at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.
The article also said that Mr. Trump resisted honoring Mr. McCain after the senator’s death in August 2018. “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral,” the article quotes Mr. Trump telling his staff. He became furious at seeing flags lowered to half-staff. “What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser,” the president told aides, according to the article.
But the cemetery story said it all:
Mr. Trump’s trip to France in November 2018 came at a fraught moment. Republicans had just lost the House in midterm elections when he flew to Paris to attend a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, and he was vexed at President Emmanuel Macron of France over a security disagreement.
But it was Mr. Trump’s failure to go through with a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery at the foot of the hill where the Battle of Belleau Wood was fought that drew the most attention. Aides at the time cited the rain in canceling a helicopter flight, but his absence went over badly in Europe and in the United States.
And now he has to fix that:
Speaking with reporters next to Air Force One on Thursday night after returning from a campaign rally, Mr. Trump insisted that weather, not disrespect, forced the flight to be scrapped and that a motorcade would have had to wind its way through congested areas of Paris. “The Secret Service told me, ‘You can’t do it,'” he said. “I said, ‘I have to do it. I want to be there.’ They said, ‘You can’t do it.'”
He said he’d create a new commission to dig into this matter and prove that was exactly what happened over there, a few years ago, really. But that won’t fix this:
Mr. Trump insisted on Thursday night and on Friday that he respected Mr. McCain even though they disagreed. “I was never a fan. I will admit that openly,” he said. But “we lowered the flags,” sent a military jet to Arizona to pick up the casket and approved a “first-class, triple-A funeral,” he added.
“All of that had to be approved by the president,” the president said. “I approved it without hesitation, without complaint.”
A former senior administration official on Friday disputed Mr. Trump’s assertion that he lowered the flags for Mr. McCain without complaint. Miles Taylor, who was chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security at the time, said he got calls from the White House unhappy that the department had ordered flags lowered. “The president is upset, this has gone out too soon and he doesn’t want it to happen,” he quoted a White House aide telling him.
“I was then asked, ‘Would you guys be able to rescind the directive?'” Mr. Taylor said in an interview. He said he resisted, and ultimately White House aides pushed Mr. Trump to keep the flags lowered. But it was made clear that the president “won’t want them down, and he’s angry.” Mr. Taylor, who recently endorsed Mr. Biden, said that he found the episode “pretty astounding and disgusting.”
And that’s the problem, too much evidence:
The president’s animosity with Mr. McCain had its roots in a dispute over a development project in 1996, when the senator opposed a federal loan guarantee that Mr. Trump sought for a West Side project in Manhattan. But he is not the only military figure to come under Mr. Trump’s critical gaze. During his first presidential campaign, he publicly dismissed the commanders fighting the Islamic State, saying, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”
During a meeting at the Pentagon in 2017, he berated top generals. “I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Mr. Trump told them, according to “A Very Stable Genius” by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig. “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
The military remembers such things, and they know their man:
The White House found itself on defensive footing as more potentially damaging allegations emerged about Trump’s views of the military, including on Fox News, the cable network that Trump has relied on for favorable coverage. One Fox correspondent reported that Trump had told aides – while planning for an Independence Day celebration on the National Mall last year – that the inclusion of wounded veterans was “not a good look” and that “Americans don’t like that.”
One former senior administration official told The Washington Post that John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general who was serving as Trump’s chief of staff during the trip to France, grew frustrated on a regular basis with Trump’s lack of basic knowledge about the military and its operations.
A second former official said Trump would occasionally speak disparagingly of the military, angering Kelly and Jim Mattis, another retired general who served as defense secretary. That former official said Trump often praised top military officials and liked surrounding himself with commanders in uniforms. But the president also would complain that the military leaders were myopic and did not understand the business world he had come from, including the importance of profits and losses.
No, they understood the business world he had come from. They understood that it was irrelevant to his job and theirs. But it was Joe Biden who now made their point:
Biden did not limit his criticism to Trump’s purported remarks in France. Rather, he laid out a litany of examples to build a case that the president’s professed admiration for the Armed Forces is based on political expediency.
Biden cited Trump’s disparagement of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was held captive during the Vietnam War, as a “loser”; his description of concussion-like symptoms of U.S. troops in Iraq after a missile attack by Iran in January as “not very serious”; his decision not to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over U.S. intelligence reports that Moscow had bribed Taliban forces to kill American troops; and the efforts by military leaders to drape a flag over the name of the USS McCain battleship in Japan ahead of Trump’s trip there last year…
Biden’s campaign also arranged a conference call for reporters with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), both military veterans, as well as Khizr Khan, the father of an American service member killed in the Iraq War in 2004, who has been critical of Trump.
“I’d take my wheelchair and titanium legs over Donald Trump’s supposed bone spurs any day,” said Duckworth, who lost both legs during a rocket attack by Iraqi insurgents in 2004.
As for our troops in Iraq after that missile attack by Iran in January, traumatic brain injury isn’t “a little headache” even if he thinks these troops are despicable whining little babies, not real men, like him. But this isn’t the time or place to discuss brain damage.
Or maybe it is. Things have gone wrong. CNN’s Stephen Collinson sums that up:
There have been many weeks when the Trump train has looked like it’s going to jump the tracks. But in the seven days since the Republican convention, the President has come perhaps as close as he ever has to a full derailment. The outrages, conspiracy theories and drama have come so fast that it’s almost impossible to believe Donald Trump can keep this up for another eight weeks until Election Day…
On Thursday, even the President and the White House seemed to think he might have gone too far with his suggestion that North Carolinians try to vote twice to test election security, a potential crime and the latest attempt by the President to cast as illegitimate an election that polls suggest he may lose. At a rally on Thursday in Pennsylvania, Trump again said mail-in ballots are a “disgrace,” charging that dogs have received them in the mail. He advised his supporters to “follow” their ballots and go vote if they’re not tabulated.
In just the latest sign that astounding developments are the norm in Trump’s presidency, he pulled aside the White House press pool after returning to Andrews Air Force Base from his rally on Thursday night to deny that he had mocked the sacrifice of America’s war dead and had yet again insulted the late Sen. John McCain…
It’s clearer than ever that his platform for this election is his own wild behavior that animates his hyperbolic claim that a Democratic presidency would see the suburbs torched by rioters – not the statesmanlike script choreographed at the RNC.
He’s just somewhere else:
No President in modern history has gone into a reelection race warning that the process of choosing a government that is the bedrock of American democracy is illegitimate. Trump’s conduct risks a full-on post-election constitutional crisis.
As well as the North Carolina furor, Trump this week claimed that plane-loads of dark-clad rioters were crisscrossing the country. He appeared to justify the actions of a teenage vigilante who killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He denied he had a series of “mini strokes,” sparking speculation about his health. It emerged that the President and Russia, yet again, are on the same page, as an intelligence briefing revealed that Moscow is also spreading misinformation about mail-in voting to harm the integrity of the election. And he mocked Biden for wearing a mask as the country continues to lead the world in coronavirus cases, with more than 6 million infections.
Trump also visited Kenosha, the latest US city consumed by racial tensions and protests that turned violent following the shooting of a Black man by police. Trump didn’t bring reconciliation, however, and appeared to shut down Black pastors about to talk about racial injustice. He compared the brutality of police officers who shoot armed Black men to golfers with the yips who choke over a “three foot putt.”
And as always, the President has been ignoring the worst domestic crisis since World War II, a pandemic that has killed 185,000 Americans and counting — as a key model predicts 410,000 US coronavirus deaths by the end of the year.
And then there’s that other guy, the shadow president:
While the storm was raging at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Biden has been doing his best to offer Americans a more traditional brand of presidential leadership. He delivered a speech in Pittsburgh on Monday condemning violence in all its forms. “Rioting is not protesting, looting is not protesting,” Biden declared, while making a strident call for racial justice. He also offered condolences for the death of one of the President’s supporters in unrest in Portland, Oregon. He held a presidential-style forum on the “national emergency” in schools and colleges as a new academic year starts, stunted by Covid-19.
Biden followed Trump to Kenosha on Thursday, but actually spoke to Jacob Blake, the man gravely injured by police. He counseled the family and spoke about the need for reconciliation and police and social reform – shouldering the anger and fear in the country as a normal president might be expected to do.
That’s how it’s done and that’s the choice:
Does a sufficient slice of the country still want a careening, politically incorrect President who appears ready to tear the country down around him? Will the cultural connection that Trump has forged with his fervent base voters – especially on racial issues – supersede unease about his mishandling of a pandemic that has shut down normal life?
Or with no end in sight to the crisis, are there 270 electoral votes to elevate an elderly, temperate and traditional president in Biden, who, instead of constant uproar, is offering to serve as a counselor in troubled times?
Who knows? But there are a few hints. Philip Bump reports this:
President Trump and the Republican Party got four days of prime-time television last week to make the case to the American public for Trump’s reelection… Over and over, convention speakers, including Trump, warned of an ominous dark cloud approaching: a Joe Biden presidency, in which the former vice president was both controlled by first-term members of Congress and subjugated to the whims of left-wing protesters. Over and over, scenes of carnage – all occurring recently, under Trump – were superimposed with warnings about what a President Biden would wreak.
This was simply the culmination of this line of attack for Trump. For weeks his campaign had been running ads with a similar message, and Trump, in his off-the-cuff remarks at various events, had been offering similar warnings. And in the first week after the Republican convention, we can now say with confidence that America has identified one of the major-party candidates as more capable of addressing crime and violence at protests.
America appears to prefer Joe Biden.
The most recent poll on the subject was published by ABC News on Friday. Conducted with Ipsos, it asked Americans who they thought would do a better job handling a number of issues, including reducing violence and keeping the country safe. Biden was preferred by double-digit margins, across the board.
This wasn’t even close:
Biden was preferred on the issue in Wisconsin even after Trump repeatedly focused on unrest in the city of Kenosha. Even in a state with active protests and sporadic violence, Biden was seen as the more capable candidate.
A national poll from Quinnipiac University asked people a broader question: how safe they felt with Trump as president or how safe they expected to feel should Biden win. By a 15-point margin, Americans said that they felt less safe in a Trump presidency; in total, that was the view of fully half the country.
Trump has written off the Black vote. He’s written off the Hispanic vote. He’s written off the urban vote. He’s lost most of the women’s vote. He’s lost most of the young and the college-educated. Now the military is gone, and now half the country thinks he’ll get us all killed. Is this over yet?