The Trouble With Jeffrey: On Trump, The Atlantic, Goldberg and Cannon Fodder

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Let me start this by saying that I don’t like Joe Biden and think he’d be a terrible president, but I hope he defeats Donald Trump in November. I won’t be voting for Biden because as a resident of Washington, D.C. my ballot effectively doesn’t count since he’s sure to win the District’s Electoral College votes and I’d prefer not to participate in an election that is fundamentally undemocratic (the role of money, the Electoral College, rules against third parties, etc. etc.) and in favor of a ticket as awful as Biden and Kamala Harris.

That said, a Trump victory would, in my view, be far worse for numerous, sundry and highly obvious reasons, though that’s the topic of another story. But reelecting Trump would validate the past four year’s of his godawful administration. Can Biden be pushed to the left? That seems wildly implausible, but at least there’s a possibility of putting boundaries on some of his worst impulses, whereas Trump can’t be limited at all.

In any case, as I said, that’s the topic of another story. The topic of this story is the news coverage of Trump, and how it increases the odds of his winning reelection by allowing his to whip up further hatred of the media, which is already the country’s least trusted institution.

Ever since Trump won the election, the media has deemed it acceptable to print anything about him without verification and frequently on the basis of unnamed sources. First (and ever since) it was that he was basically an asset of Vladimir Putin’s. More recently, it was widely reported that he essentially didn’t object when told that Iran was offering “bounties to Taliban fighters for targeting American and coalition troops in Afghanistan.” (A story which itself is highly dubious.) These are very serious allegations and it seems to me that if you’re going to call the president of the United States a spy, a traitor and an enemy of the country’s own soldiers, you should really have the facts nailed down.

Now, in The Atlantic last week, we learn from Jeffrey Goldberg that Trump:

canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 [and] blamed rain for the last-minute decision, saying that “the helicopter couldn’t fly” and that the Secret Service wouldn’t drive him there. Neither claim was true.

Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed.

There was also this:

On Memorial Day 2017, Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery, a short drive from the White House. He was accompanied on this visit by John Kelly, who was then the secretary of homeland security, and who would, a short time later, be named the White House chief of staff. The two men were set to visit Section 60, the 14-acre area of the cemetery that is the burial ground for those killed in America’s most recent wars. Kelly’s son Robert is buried in Section 60. A first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan. He was 29. Trump was meant, on this visit, to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members. But 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?” Kelly (who declined to comment for this story) initially believed, people close to him said, that Trump was making a ham-handed reference to the selflessness of America’s all-volunteer force. But later he came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.

“He can’t fathom the idea of doing something for someone other than himself,” one of Kelly’s friends, a retired four-star general, told me. “He just thinks that anyone who does anything when there’s no direct personal gain to be had is a sucker. There’s no money in serving the nation.” Kelly’s friend went on to say, “Trump can’t imagine anyone else’s pain. That’s why he would say this to the father of a fallen marine on Memorial Day in the cemetery where he’s buried.”

“The president privately raged about The Atlantic’s article on Friday morning, and advisers were panicked about how to counter it,” the New York Times reported September 4. “They feared it was the beginning of a constant drip of negative stories from disenchanted former officials that could sway voters.” Which is almost funny, since the media has in fact for the past four years fed the public a constant drip of negative stories about Trump from disenchanted former and current officials, and Democrats, often unnamed for the flimsiest of reasons.

Currently there’s constant commentary in the media about Trump not accepting defeat if he loses in November — a legitimate question though I think his efforts to suppress the Democratic vote and whip up the law and order component of his base are far more pertinent and disturbing. However, it’s undeniable that the Democratic Party and its donors did not accept the legitimacy of the 2016 outcome and immediately began working to nullify it and, when that failed, sought to spread information to impeach Trump and remove him from office. (The irony being that there were ample grounds to do so, but the Democrats and the media picked Russiagate, the weakest link.)

I personally would not call military members who died overseas “suckers” or “losers” — and Trump getting out of Vietnam on the basis of a bogus bone spur diagnosis would make such remarks especially repellent — but Vietnam, Afghanistan and World War I were all dumb wars in which our country’s national leadership sent young men and women to die for no good reason, and has allowed them to keep dying in Afghanistan because it was politically inconvenient to acknowledge that the war was lost and simply get out. The term “cannon fodder” was popularized during World War I and it would not have been ignorant for Trump to have asked, if The Atlantic account is true, “Who were the good guys in this war?” and to wonder “why the United States would intervene on the side of the Allies.” (A lot of people at the time wondered the same thing. “To be pro-business and anti-union was associated with Americanism and patriotic duty and alternatively, to be anti-capitalist and pro-union was tantamount to pro-Germanism and treason,” says this interesting article.)

So is The Atlantic story true? I expect parts may be — especially comments not cited here about John McCain — but there’s plenty of reason to think it was riddled with inaccuracies or was misleading at best. Either way, the story shouldn’t have been published and I don’t believe it would have been if it had been about former presidents Barack Obama or even George W. Bush. (Yes, I know multiple news organizations have allegedly “confirmed” the story, but all that means is they found anonymous sources — maybe Goldberg’s own — to retell The Atlantic‘s tale.)

As noted above, Goldberg cites “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion” of why Trump didn’t go to the cemetery. He subsequently claimed on CNN that he allowed them to go off the record because they didn’t “want to be inundated with angry tweets and all the rest.” Editors out there, would you accept that reason for granting source anonymity from a writer, especially on a story of this magnitude and with potential consequences for a presidential election two months down the road? (Of course, it helps that in the case of Goldberg’s story he was the writer and is the magazine’s editor so there was no resistance to overcome.) Speaking of which, if this story is accurate why didn’t it come out until now? Why did the sources sit on these horrendous comments for the past two years.

How hard did Goldberg try to challenge what his sources told him? It would appear not very hard at all, which is even more troubling given that he clearly detests Trump. (In 2016, he wrote a story saying Hillary Clinton was “running against Vladimir Putin.) That’s fine, but it means he needed to be especially careful in checking a story that he was inclined to believe.

After the story came out, the Times reported that “multiple current and former Trump administration officials have come forward [on the record] to say the story is inaccurate, and internal Navy documents that were obtained by other journalists via public-records request state that Trump’s visit to the cemetery was canceled due to inclement weather.” Even if you write off the pro-Trump sources, what about the public records?

So far, no direct witness has come forward to verify Goldberg’s account on the record, including John Kelly. Meanwhile, the Times story said, “John R. Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser who has broken with him and called him unfit for office, said he was on the trip in question and never heard Mr. Trump make those remarks. ‘I didn’t hear that,’ Mr. Bolton said in an interview. ‘I’m not saying he didn’t say them later in the day or another time, but I was there for that discussion’.”

Did Goldberg seek comment from Bolton? It seems inconceivable that he didn’t, and it not it was a huge dereliction of journalism duty. Did Bolton’s comments, if he spoke to Goldberg, end up on the cutting room floor because they didn’t fit his narrative? And why couldn’t he find anyone from the Trump side — among the numerous who subsequently denied the story — to comment?

I don’t believe Goldberg made up the quotes. That’s not his M.O. He gets sources to confirm whatever story he’s peddling, which is easy to do no matter what the topic (and especially when granted confidentiality.)

Before failing upward to The Atlantic, he essentially fabricated stories at the New Yorker which paved the way for the Iraq War, including one that claimed Saddam Hussein had WMDs and another that said his regime had deep ties to Al-Qaeda. Much of what he wrote in the latter was based on the testimony of Mohammed Mansour Shahab, a prisoner in a Kurdish-controlled town in northern Iraq. Jason Burke of the Observer later demolished Goldberg’s story when he spoke to the same prisoner and found that he couldn’t even describe the city of Kandahar, where Shahab had claimed that he’d traveled on Al Qaeda-related business. “Shahab is a liar,” Burke concluded. “[S]ubstantial chunks of his story simply are not true.”

I underestimated how terrible a president Trump would be in 2016. And to reiterate, I hope he loses in November, despite how dreary the prospect of a Biden/Harris administration. There’s been great reporting on the Trump administration’s corruption and his hideous policies, but I continue to be amazed that the media publishes remarkable claims without confirmation, then treats the claims as true beyond dispute, and can generally get away with it because unnamed sources can’t be questioned.

Note the above tweet. Trump lies shamelessly and without remorse, so his denial can’t be considered definitive. But Goldberg literally cannot know that his story is true because he wasn’t on the trip. His insistence on its accuracy shows how reporters can’t (or won’t) imagine that their sources would lie to them, and unquestionably accept the stories they tell, especially when convenient. Meanwhile Bolton, a pure Trump hater with every motivation to confirm the story, denies a central component, and there’s other evidence that undermines it.

On-the-record witnesses coming forward — if any are bold enough to defy Twitter — would change things, but at the moment this look like a story partially true at best and one timed and calculated to hurt Trump’s election chances. If they don’t come forward, it will further undermine the media, which merely helps Trump.

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