The Atlantic's Trump report: We should know the sources of a story this important

The headline over the bombshell story in The Atlantic magazine exploded on the media and political worlds like a grenade going off in a battle — the kind of headline that would certainly give the president’s detractors yet one more reason to detest the man.

“Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers’”

The story ran under the byline of Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine’s editor-in chief, a journalist who is no fan of Donald Trump. News organizations all over the world picked up the story.

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And, in a close election, Goldberg’s story could have great influence; it could convince undecided voters to support Trump’s opponent.

“When President Donald Trump canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018,” the story began, “he 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.”

According to The Atlantic’s Goldberg (no relation), “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.”

That’s quite an indictment — the commander in chief disparaging the memories of brave Marines, calling them “losers” and “suckers.” If it weren’t so late in the game, Democrats might try to impeach him for those remarks, whether he actually said them or not.

You’ll notice that there are no names attached to those accusations — just that there were four people who supposedly had “firsthand knowledge” of what the president is alleged to have said. Why wouldn’t they go on the record?

Goldberg says it's because “They don’t want to be inundated with angry tweets and all the rest.” As the kids say, "Whatever!"

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The president vehemently says it never happened. And since he’s routinely critical of unflattering coverage, it’s no surprise he tweeted that "The Atlantic Magazine is dying, like most magazines, so they make up a fake story in order to gain some relevance."

There were others on that trip in 2018 who back up the president’s story.

John BoltonJohn BoltonDiplomacy with China is good for America The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by The Air Line Pilots Association - Pence lauds Harris as 'experienced debater'; Trump, Biden diverge over debate prep DOJ launches probe into Bolton book for possible classified information disclosures MORE, Trump’s national security adviser at the time, writes about the trip in his recent memoir, which often describes the president in less than flattering terms. But he makes no mention of anything resembling Goldberg’s account. He told The New York Times, Bloomberg News and other media on Thursday that he never heard Trump say such things. “I didn't hear that. I'm not saying he didn't say them later in the day or another time, but I was there for that discussion,” he told The New York Times.

So, as you might expect, the old controversy over unnamed sources has come to the surface yet again. With less than two months to go before we vote for president, some critics are saying The Atlantic had no business publishing such a potentially damaging piece unless Trump’s accusers were willing to attach their names to the accusation.

“Each time, this is a judgment call, right?” Goldberg told CNN. “Does the public’s interest in needing this information outweigh the ambiguities or the difficulties of anonymous sourcing? And in this case, I decided that I felt I knew this information well enough from high enough sources and multiple sources that I thought we should put it out.”

Despite that explanation, I wouldn’t bet two cents that he’d publish that same story less than two months before a presidential election if it put Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll GOP set to release controversial Biden report Can Donald Trump maintain new momentum until this November? MORE or Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Democratic super PAC to hit Trump in battleground states over coronavirus deaths Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight MORE or Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocratic Senate campaign arm outraises GOP by M in August A federal court may have declared immigration arrests unconstitutional Blunt says vote on Trump court nominee different than 2016 because White House, Senate in 'political agreement' MORE or any other liberal in the crosshairs — and especially if their accusers refused to be named.

It’s no secret that liberals loathe this president, and that includes liberals in the media. For more than two years, they ran with a story about how Trump was colluding with the Russians to throw the 2016 election his way. It never happened.

At the Democratic Party convention, Biden said, "Remember what the president said when asked, he said there were, quote, 'very fine people on both sides'" at a violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., and added that that was the moment when "I knew I had to run" for president. That wasn’t true, either — not the way Biden was telling it.

When he was asked about the presence of neo-Nazis at the rally, President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden leads Trump by 36 points nationally among Latinos: poll Trump dismisses climate change role in fires, says Newsom needs to manage forest better Jimmy Kimmel hits Trump for rallies while hosting Emmy Awards MORE did say, "You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people on both sides." And during the same press conference, he went on to say, "I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.”

Biden has repeated his fake version of what President Trump said several times since the convention — and, for the most part, many journalists allow him to get away with his accusation.

Democrats have accused the president of stealing mailboxes to make it more difficult for Americans to vote by mail. That’s also not true.

And when Biden deigns to answer reporters’ questions, he gets softballs tossed his way, unlike the president. I’m waiting for one of them to ask Joe what his favorite color is. Or what kind of tree he would be if he could be a tree.

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Which brings us back to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. On July 21, 2016, he wrote a piece in the magazine under the headline “It's Official: Hillary Clinton Is Running Against Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocrats fear Russia interference could spoil bid to retake Senate Putin is about to turn his attention to the American way of life Putin critic Navalny posts photo of himself walking: 'Long' path to recovery MORE.” It ended with this: “The moral arc of the universe is long, and, if Trump is elected, it will bend in the direction of despotism and darkness.”

Does that prove Goldberg concocted a story to hurt the president? Hardly. But what it does tell us is that when a journalist makes public his utter distaste for this president (or any other politician), if he’s going to write a story that accuses him of describing dead Marines as “losers” and “suckers” less than two months before what looks like a close election, it’s crucial to back up the claim with named sources.

Otherwise, it looks like a hit job. 

As for the timing of the Atlantic story, let's just say it looks suspicious, that maybe Jeffrey Goldberg released the story as a "September surprise" to hurt the president. Who knows? Maybe those unnamed sources will come forward next month in an "October surprise."

But did Trump actually say those things? I don’t know. Given his long history of nastiness, I wouldn’t put it past him. His denials have the same credibility as the kid with crumbs on his face swearing he didn't take the cookies from the cookie jar; his dishonesty is chronic. But the press has credibility problems, too.

Once, we routinely believed what we read in reputable publications. Not anymore. A recent poll by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 86 percent of Americans think journalists have a political bias. So, in a perverse way, it doesn’t matter if the Atlantic story is true. People will believe what they choose to believe based on their own feelings about the president — not on what some supposedly objective journalist tells them is true.

That’s how little trust many Americans have in the so-called mainstream media these days.

Bernard Goldberg, an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist, is a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” He previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Patreon page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.