In the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, the common refrain was to remain vigilant in remembering the absurdity of their new leader: “this isn’t normal.” Those opposed to Trump were encouraged to never become complacent with his casual cruelty, to always remind themselves that the Trump presidency is an aberration. Masha Gessen’s essay “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” was shared widely, its dire warnings of how easy it is for the terrible to become normal were both chilling and unfathomable.
In reality, many facets of Trump’s presidency are not at all unique; despite what Joe Biden says, Trump is not the first racist president, or the first xenophobic one, or the only president to demonize the most marginalized with glee. And while Trump’s presidency has been riddled with norm-shattering junctures and an offensive temperament that Americans have rarely associated with the commander in chief, one can only feign shock and outrage for so long. Trump showed us who he was long before he won the presidency, and has continued, daily, to show us who he is throughout his first term in office.
But a damning report published Thursday evening by the Atlantic has been hailed as a sort of rare, candid exposé of the President’s more appalling transgressions, a mask-off moment like the “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape during the 2016 general election. The article chronicled President Trump’s disparaging comments about service members and wounded veterans while in office. One of the most galling accounts described Trump’s 2018 scheduled visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, which was canceled due to concerns about his hair becoming ruined by rain and, allegedly, his lack of interest in honoring dead servicemen. “Why should I go to that cemetery?” Trump asked. “It’s filled with losers.” He also reportedly referred to the over 1,800 Marines who were killed in the 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood during World War I as “suckers.”
Trump’s history of unsavory comments toward service members and their families has been highly publicized for years: During his initial presidential run, he attacked the Muslim family of Humayun Khan, an Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004. And he repeatedly derided late Sen. John McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, insisting that McCain wasn’t a war hero and that he “like[s] people who weren’t captured.”
Still, The Atlantic offered even more anecdotes:
When McCain died, in August 2018, Trump told his senior staff, according to three sources with direct knowledge of this event, “We’re not going to support that loser’s funeral,” and he became furious, according to witnesses, when he saw flags lowered to half-staff. “What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser,” the president told aides.
On at least two occasions since becoming president, according to three sources with direct knowledge of his views, Trump referred to former President George H. W. Bush as a “loser” for being shot down by the Japanese as a Navy pilot in World War II.
In the 1990s, Trump said his efforts to avoid contracting sexually transmitted diseases constituted his “personal Vietnam.”
According to eyewitnesses, after a White House briefing given by the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, Trump turned to aides and said, “That guy is smart. Why did he join the military?”
Trump also reportedly asked his staff not to include wounded veterans in a military parade his administration was planning in 2018, insisting that people are uncomfortable by the presence of amputees. “Nobody wants to see that,” he said. This lack of empathy is consistent with another anecdote from the Atlantic article, which described Trump visiting Arlington National Cemetary with John Kelly, his former secretary of homeland security. Kelly’s son, Robert, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps who was killed in Afghanistan, is buried there: “According to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
A White House spokesperson and President Trump himself have both denied the veracity of these claims.
Trump’s open disrespect of veterans counters decades worth of Republican dogma: While rarely backed up with any actual policy, the Republican Party has deemed itself the party of veterans and service members, the party that truly cares for the men and women in uniform, the party that venerates American values: country, duty, and honor. But Trump, the Republican president, largely rejects the importance of those values.
The Atlantic piece successfully draws out a pattern, showing that Trump’s past comments weren’t simply against specific individuals who happened to be veterans (Khan, McCain), but instead make it clear that self-sacrifice and selflessness are concepts that Trump is fundamentally baffled by. For Trump, unless there is wealth to be won (or plundered), why bother? Such a blasé approach toward military service from the Republican party of 2004 is unthinkable. But the Bush-era is long gone: It’s the party of Trump now, and his distaste for veterans and military service has been tolerated for years.
While the new information from The Atlantic story adds to the narrative of Trump’s heartless disregard for veterans and puts all of his impropriety against them in one place, it’s difficult to comprehend why this debasement is still considered shocking. Like clockwork, there was a breathless rush to call out and denounce the obscenity of this latest Trump controversy. But this reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump that lingers more than three years into his presidency. Trump isn’t interested in the greater good or American values, he’s interested in profit.
Trump’s opposition will insist that this is a bombshell moment for Trump’s presidency, regardless. The Biden campaign set up a conference call with veterans Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Connor Lamb as well as Khizr Khan “in reaction to the appalling revelations about Donald Trump and veterans.” Republican strategist Rick Wilson called the article “the nadir” of every account of Trump’s despicable nature. Conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin suggested that it’s finally time to call for Trump’s resignation.
Maybe they’re right, and maybe they’ll peel away some voters who have soured on Trump after this scandal. But after years of Trump managing to get away with everything from impeachment to sexual assault allegations to throwing veterans under the bus... pardon the skepticism.