WASHINGTON — President Trump heatedly denied on Thursday night that he referred to American soldiers killed in combat during World War I as “losers” and “suckers,” moving quickly to avoid losing support among the military and its allies just two months before an election.
Marching over to reporters under the wing of Air Force One after returning from a campaign rally, a visibly angry Mr. Trump rebutted a magazine report that he decided against visiting a cemetery for American soldiers in France in 2018 because he feared the rain would mess up his hair and he did not believe it was important to honor the war dead.
“If people really exist that would have said that, they’re lowlifes and they’re liars,” Mr. Trump shouted above the noise of the plane’s engines. “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.” He added, “What animal would say such a thing?”
The report in The Atlantic magazine by its editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, attributed the episode to “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day,” but he 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’s well-known antipathy for Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona and Vietnam War hero, was on display 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.
The report could be problematic for Mr. Trump because he is counting on strong support among the military for his re-election bid. He has made his backing for increased military spending, troop pay raises and improved veterans care pillars of his campaign at the same time he boasts of ratcheting down “endless wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But he has also clashed with the military leadership by extending clemency to accused and convicted war criminals, seeking to order active-duty forces into the streets of Washington to crack down on demonstrations and trying to block an effort to change the names of Army bases named for Confederate generals.
A new poll by The Military Times taken before the party conventions last month and released this week showed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. leading Mr. Trump with 41 percent to 37 percent among active-duty troops, a stark departure from the military’s longstanding support for Republicans.
People familiar with Mr. Trump’s comments 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 would marvel at people choosing military service over making money.
Mr. Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, sought on Thursday night to capitalize on the Atlantic article, quickly issuing a statement condemning the president and saying it demonstrated that Mr. Trump was not fit for the office. Mr. Biden said the article, if true, showed “another marker of how deeply President Trump and I disagree about the role of the president of the United States.”
“I have long said that, as a nation, we have many obligations, but we only have one truly sacred obligation — to prepare and equip those we send into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families, both while they are deployed and after they return home. That’s the foundation of what Jill and I believe,” said Mr. Biden, whose late son, Beau Biden, served overseas. “If I have the honor of serving as the next commander in chief, I will ensure that our American heroes know that I will have their back and honor their sacrifice — always.”
Mr. Trump’s trip to Paris in November 2018 came at a tense moment for him. Republicans had just lost the House in midterm elections when he flew to France to attend a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
During the trip, he was angered when President Emmanuel Macron of France seemed to rebuke Mr. Trump by saying in a speech that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying: ‘Our interest first. Who cares about the others?’”
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 the president’s absence went over badly in Europe and in the United States. Mr. Trump did pay respects to the war dead the next day at the Suresnes American Cemetery outside Paris.
At the time of the visit to France, advisers were blunt in confiding that Mr. Trump was in a foul mood and was quizzing aides about whether he should replace John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and his White House chief of staff at the time.
Several White House officials at the time said the decision that Mr. Trump would not take Marine One to the Belleau Wood cemetery was made by Zachary Fuentes, a deputy White House chief of staff and close aide to Mr. Kelly, without consulting the president’s military aide. Others argued that a motorcade trip by road would have taken too long, at roughly two hours. Administration officials said at the time that Mr. Fuentes had assured Mr. Trump it was fine to miss the visit. Mr. Kelly traveled to the cemetery himself in the president’s place along with Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mr. Trump insisted on Thursday that it was the weather, not disrespect, that forced the visit to be scrapped. “It was raining about as hard as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And on top of that, it was very, very foggy. And the helicopter was unable to fly.” To go by ground, he added, the motorcade would have had to wind its way through congested areas of Paris for more than two hours. “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.’”
A half-dozen current and former aides to Mr. Trump backed him up with Twitter messages disputing the Atlantic article. “I was actually there and one of the people part of the discussion — this never happened,” wrote Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was then the White House press secretary. “This is not even close to being factually accurate,” added Jordan Karem, the president’s personal aide at the time.
The reported comments about Mr. McCain, though, were consistent with Mr. Trump’s publicly expressed view of the senator. In 2015, while seeking the Republican nomination over Mr. McCain’s opposition, Mr. Trump famously mocked the senator’s military service and five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, “He’s not a war hero,” Mr. Trump said. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Mr. McCain remained a thorn in Mr. Trump’s side after he won the presidency, blocking an effort to overturn President Barack Obama’s health care program, a vote Mr. Trump never forgave and still speaks about with bitterness. When Mr. McCain died, aides said at the time, the president had to be shamed into lowering the flags and he was not invited to the funeral.
But speaking with reporters on Thursday night, Mr. Trump insisted that he respected Mr. McCain even though they disagreed.
“I was never a fan. I will admit that openly,” Mr. Trump said. But “we lowered the flags. I had to approve that, nobody else, I had to approve it. When you think — just thinking back, I had to approve either Air Force One or a military plane to go to Arizona to pick up his casket. And I approved it immediately. I had to approve the funeral because he had a first-class, triple-A funeral. It lasted for nine days, by the way. I had to approve it. All of that had to be approved by the president. I approved it without hesitation, without complaint.”
He seemed to suggest that The Atlantic’s article came from several former aides that he had in mind. “Probably it’s a couple of people that have been failures in the administration that I got rid of,” he said. “I couldn’t get rid of them fast enough. Or it was just made up. But it’s unthinkable.”