Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Sunday that if President Donald Trump disparaged fallen U.S. soldiers by calling them “losers,” as was reported by The Atlantic and several other news outlets, it was “despicable” and unsuitable for the person in charge of America’s armed forces.
Trump has strongly denied The Atlantic report, based on four anonymous sources, that he called dead and wounded U.S. service members “losers and suckers.” The president told reporters Thursday, “I would be willing to swear on anything that I never said that about our fallen heroes. There is nobody that respects them more.”
Several media outlets, including the Associated Press and Fox News, have since confirmed many of the quotes used in The Atlantic piece.
Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran and two-term Republican senator, told ABC News “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz that if Trump’s reported comments are “real, it’s beneath the dignity of any commander in chief. Truly they’re despicable.”
What we know about The Atlantic report:Trump accused of describing war dead as ‘losers’ and ‘suckers.’ He denies allegations.
Hagel said that while the report was based on anonymous sources, the remarks fit with a pattern of previous statements and actions. He cited Trump’s past comments about the late Sen. John McCain as well as three former military general who served in his own Cabinet: former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former national security adviser William McMaster and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. He also accused the president of using veteran and active-duty troops as political “props.”
“Let’s go back and look at Mr. Trump’s words himself coming out of his own mouth starting in 2016 with what he said about John McCain and what he continued to say about McCain,” Hagel said. “How he degraded the service of Generals Mattis and McMaster and just recently General Kelly. The history of this president over the last three and four years is pretty clear.”
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Hagel also pointed to Trump’s decision not to go to a 2018 ceremony at a military cemetery in France to honor America’s war dead. Trump claimed he was unable to attend because of weather.
“Every other leader went. Every other leader drove. The leaders of France, Germany, Canada,” Hagel said. “And you can go through a litany of past things that he said from his mouth, actions that he’s taken and it corroborates really the Goldberg article in The Atlantic.'”
Hagel, who ran the Department of Defense from 2013-2015 under former President Barack Obama, said the issue would “resonate” with service members because and encouraged the anonymous sources in the story to come forward publicly.
“These guys who have said this, or allegedly said it, think it’s that important for the future of this country, then they should show some courage and step forward as well,” he said.
Hagel said there many Trump supporters who would not believe the report even if those sources identified themselves.
“That’s just the reality of politics and the freedom of expression and we have a great country where you can believe what you want to believe. But facts are facts,” he said. “And the reality of those facts are pretty clear.”
Many other current and former officials disagree and have come to Trump’s defense.
On Saturday former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said she others who worked for Trump “witnessed the tremendous amount of love and respect he has for our military.”
“He was determined to protect them. We had many conversations in NSC meetings about protecting them,” she said in a tweet calling on the Biden campaign to take down an add based on The Atlantic report.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he had “absolutely not” heard Trump refer to troops in a derogatory way.
“I would be offended too if I thought it was true,” he said, questioning the credibility of anonymous sources.
Wilkie credited Trump with starting “a renaissance” at the VA and said he was “judging the president based on what he’s done as president.”
“I judge a man by his actions,” Wilkie said. And Trump’s “actions have been beneficial for veterans all across this country in ways that we have not seen since the end of World War II.”
Contributing: David Jackson, John Fritze, Michael Collins and Tom Vanden Brook