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Fallout: 'Atlantic' Reports Trump Called Americans Who Died In War 'Losers'

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Multiple news organizations have now reported on private remarks by the president disparaging Americans who served or died in war. The Atlantic first reported this story last week. It mentioned remarks the president has made in public on video, like those criticizing Senator John McCain. The story reported out the backstory of the delay in lowering flags for McCain's funeral, a fact that played out in public at the time. The Atlantic also quoted multiple sources saying that the president refused to visit a cemetery for the dead in World War I in France, saying that the people who laid down their lives there were suckers. The president has denied this story using his usual broad language about a hoax, but Fox News and The Associated Press have quoted sources telling similar stories about a president who does not seem to understand why anybody would serve their country in that way.

NPR has not independently confirmed these stories, but they are widely enough reported that we've called Maura Sullivan, who is a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and was assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs and a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration. She joins us from Portsmouth, N.H.

Good morning.

MAURA SULLIVAN: Good morning, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: How much does it matter to you what the president says about the military in private?

SULLIVAN: Well, you know, Steve, the president's assertion that, you know, our fallen brothers and sisters and fellow Americans, you know, are suckers and losers is simply abhorrent. You know, many fellow veterans that I've heard from, you know, across my state of New Hampshire and across the country these past few days are outraged and sickened and, frankly, deeply concerned about the state of our nation. You know, the president seems to lack, you know, the understanding and the concept of, you know, being willing to give your life for something greater than yourself, of living by words like honor and courage and commitment. The understanding and concept of service and sacrifice is just - is notably absent here.

INSKEEP: There is this denial from the White House. We're talking about widely respected reporters - Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Jennifer Griffin of Fox News to name a couple of them - very well-sourced individuals. But they are quoting people who are giving their views without their names about conversations that they recall. And it does seem that some people who were around, like John Bolton, the former national security adviser, say they remember things differently. Do you have any doubt about this story?

SULLIVAN: I do not. You know, as you mentioned, four national publications, including Fox News and The Associated Press, have confirmed that The Atlantic story is true. And you know, we heard from Carl Bernstein over the weekend who pointed out that, you know, he and Bob Woodward relied on such sources to uncover what we all know now to be, you know, the truth about Watergate. As you mentioned, you know, Jeffrey Goldberg is a very reputable journalist. And again, multiple sources, you know, to include Fox News, have corroborated this story.

INSKEEP: One of the - and when we say corroborated, I mean, everybody's reporting is a little bit different. There are various different remarks the president is alleged to have made over time. One of them in the reporting, though, is a remark about General John Kelly's son. Of course, John Kelly was the chief of staff at the White House. He's a veteran himself, son was a veteran killed in combat. They went and visited the grave. This remark was allegedly made to General Kelly. Should General Kelly be speaking out in person under his own name?

SULLIVAN: Well, you know - again, Steve, we don't know the sources. And frankly, it's inappropriate for us to speculate. But what we do know...

INSKEEP: But what I want to know is if you think that John Kelly should just say, look; this happened, or it didn't happen? Should he be telling us?

SULLIVAN: I think - it's not necessary for the sources. And again, we don't know who the sources are. And it's inappropriate for us to - inappropriate for us to speculate who they are. There is an important separation, as we all know, between leadership in the military and, you know, political discussions and conversations. But what's important and what we do know here and what we should be focused on is the president's record on the military, which has been abysmal in terms of understanding fellow service members and, frankly, providing the leadership that troops respect.

You know, he has been - he being the president - totally transactional, you know, without, you know, honor, courage and integrity - the values that we as members of the military and veterans, you know, have lived by. And what we also know is, you know, the president has a history of lying as well as disparaging members of the military. I mean, just recently, he lied about his previous remarks, you know, regarding John McCain, an American hero and someone who sacrificed so much for our country. And I think that's what, you know - that's what we should be focused on.

INSKEEP: In a couple of sentences - when the president says I love our veterans, I support our troops, I've helped the military, I've boosted the military - those are just words to you?

SULLIVAN: I mean, they are. Again, he's got just a history of lying and disparaging, you know, great Americans, you know, like John McCain. He has been - you know, he's been noted to say things about former President George H.W. Bush. And his record speaks for itself.

INSKEEP: Ms. Sullivan, thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Maura Sullivan is a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and a former Pentagon official and assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs. She spoke from New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.