Atlantic article on Donald Trump leaves us with sad tale over trust

Until this week, the most famous saying on the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War One was the declaration of Captain Lloyd Williams to a French commander, “Retreat! Hell we just got here.” A more famous saying could be the alleged description of President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE for the fallen Americans as “losers.” This battle is between entrenched forces, with Republicans and Trump on one side, Democrats and the media on the other. In the middle are the rest of us. The lack of movement in public opinion may not reflect a split of support but rather a view of both sides as unbelievable.

This latest national controversy is triggered by an Atlantic article written by editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg. It alleges damaging statements made by Trump, such as dismissing the dead buried at Aisne Marne Cemetery in France as “losers” and “suckers.” Yet what is most striking is that this story would ordinarily be unbelievable. What person, let alone the president of the United States, would refer to brave Americans in such terms?

The problem is that Trump has made numerous unbelievable statements and lied about them. In denying this story, he has insisted that he never used the term “losers” when talking about John McCain. Yet he said of McCain, a former prisoner of war, “I like people who were not captured,” and later referred to him with, “I dislike losers.” A Fox News reporter said her own sources confirmed that Trump disparaged veterans.

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He is at the point where there is nothing that most of us would rule out in terms of shocking and offensive statements. He often refers to people as “losers” and allegedly said that of those who fought in Vietnam instead of getting a deferment or medical exclusion like he did. If an article included such an alleged statement by either President Bush, that would have been dismissed as ridiculous. However, Trump has made himself vulnerable to such allegations because of previous outrageous statements.

Yet the same is true of the media. Three years ago, a story of this kind would have been devastating for any president, but the media has now rendered itself as unbelievable as the subject of its current wrath. While denouncing Trump as a pathological liar, the media shows pathological bias. Polls consistently portray the media racing Trump to the bottom on public trust. Most of the media now feeds a steady diet of unrelentingly negative stories to this shrinking audience with true believers.

The media has hit a historic low in public faith, with less than half of the population finding it credible today. Some polls show that the only group deemed less trustworthy than Trump is the media. The Knight Foundation has found that a vast majority of Americans believe the media shows bias, more than half believe that reporters regularly misrepresent facts, while more than a fourth believe that reporters make things up entirely.

The reason for this view of bias is that it is true. Many journalists these days do not attempt to hide their agendas against Trump. In the age of echo chamber news, it is even viewed as an essential commitment on some outlets and networks. False stories have been published regularly, only to be withdrawn or corrected after the news cycle has run.

As reporters hit the White House with angry questions about the Atlantic article, a press conference held by Joe Biden was an image of deference and decorum. Reporters appeared to go out of their way to confirm the criticism of the softball treatment given to the Democratic candidate in the campaign. Atlantic writer Edward Isaac Dovere asked Biden, “When you hear the remarks of suckers, losers, recoiling from amputees, what does it tell you of the soul of the president and the life he leads?”

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There was a time when a statement in a major publication was taken to be true. My children, however, have no such presumption about any kind of news source. Even more disturbing, neither do I these days. The Atlantic article embodies the discomfort with such “movement” journalism. It has been the repository of all things against Trump. Past claims in the Atlantic on his campaign, like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions colluding with Russians, were debunked by the special counsel investigation. In the age of echo chamber news, the Atlantic is certainly deafening.

The core alleged comment, attributed to anonymous sources, has been denied by a host of officials who were with Trump at the time, including former national security adviser John Bolton. The article says that Trump did not visit the cemetery over his concern that the rainy day would mess up his hair, but White House documents show that, as stated at the time, the military notified that the helicopter should be grounded. Bolton has confirmed the weather was the reason and noted that, if this story were true, he would have made it a chapter in his book. Trump might not have wanted to visit, but the reason was bad weather for flying.

Other allegations include Trump deriding the death of the son of General John Kelly, who has not commented on whether the president expressed disbelief that such men would give their lives for their country saying, “I do not get it. What was in it for them?” Kelly should now confirm or deny it. Indeed, if this is true, what many of us do not get is why he would not only ignore such a question but continue to serve as Homeland Security secretary for Trump and then as White House chief of staff.

The real story this week is not whether Trump or the Atlantic are lying but why either possibility is viewed as equally plausible. The public is left with an incredible tale told by two equally noncredible sources. That is the real story in the news, and it is a truly sad one for our country.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.