Below is my column in the Hill newspaper about the recent controversy surrounding The Atlantic article on alleged comments by President Donald Trump belittling veterans and war dead buried in the Aisne-Marne American cemetery. I have been very critical of President Trump's reaction, particularly his call for a Fox reporter to be fired to confirm elements of the story. In truth, Fox did not confirm that Trump described the dead buried in the French cemetery as "losers" and "idiots". However, there are sources that say Trump used such terms to describe Vietnam veterans. Conversely, in an interview with CNN, the article's author, Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, was fiercely disproved by various officials for claiming the cancellation of Trump's visit was due to his concerns about his hair or a derogatory view of the fallen. When asked about documents and witnesses suggesting the cancellation was weather-related, Goldberg appeared to just shrug his shoulders and say that these reports might be true, but that Trump still holds disrespectful views from veterans. That was hardly a resounding defense of these elements of his article. The problem for many in the public is that we have lost the assumption that either the President or the press are a reliable source of such controversy. According to surveys, a majority do not find either trustworthy. This is where the cost of such eroded trust is highest. After years of lying or bias, both sides of the public have left no credible basis on which to learn the truth in a major scandal.
Here is the column:
Up until this week, the most famous quote related to the Battle of Belleau Wood in World War I was the statement by US Navy Captain Lloyd Williams to a French commander: “Withdraw, hell! We just got here. “Now, a more famous quote could be President Trump's alleged description of the fallen Americans of the battle as" losers ".
Like the war itself, today's political struggle is between entrenched forces – Trump and Republicans on the one hand, Democrats and the media on the other. We are all in the middle. The lack of movement in public opinion may not reflect an even sharing of support, but rather a widespread view of both sides as being equally incredible.
This latest controversy was sparked by an Atlantic article written by the magazine's editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg. The article alleges harmful statements by Trump, such as the release of the dead buried in the American cemetery at Aisne-Marne as "losers" and "fools". What is most striking about this story is that it would normally be completely incredible. What person, let alone an American president, would refer to brave Americans in such terms?
The problem is that Trump made a long series of such incredible comments and then lied about them. In denying this latest story, he insisted that "I never called John (McCain) a loser". However, in 2015 he actually said to McCain, a former prisoner of war, "I like people who haven't been captured," and later referred to the former Republican presidential candidate as "I don't like losers".
He later tweeted a headline: "Donald Trump: John McCain is a loser." A Fox News reporter said her own sources confirmed that Trump was demeaning veterans and refusing to go to the cemetery. Trump has reached a point where there is nothing most of us would rule out about making shocking or insulting statements. He often refers to people as "losers" and allegedly once said this about those who fought in Vietnam instead of receiving displacement or medical exclusion like him.
If an article had contained such an alleged statement by President Bush, it would have been instantly dismissed as ridiculous. Over the past three years, Trump has made himself vulnerable to such accusations based on his history of outrageous remarks.
However, the same applies to the media. Three years ago, such a story would have been devastating for any president – but the media has made itself as incredible as the subject of its current anger. While Trump was denounced as a pathological liar, the media was pathologically biased. Surveys show time and time again that the media get to the bottom of Trump when it comes to trustworthiness. Most of the media now regularly feed on relentlessly negative stories from a shrinking audience of true believers.
As a result, the media has hit an all-time low, and less than half the population finds it credible. Some polls show that the only group that is considered less trustworthy than Trump is the media. The Knight Foundation found that three-quarters of the public think the media is too biased. 54 percent believe reporters routinely misrepresent facts, and 28 percent believe reporters make things up.
There's a reason for this bias view: it's true. Many journalists do not try to hide their anti-Trump agendas. In the age of "echo journalism", this is even seen as an essential commitment in some networks. False stories were regularly published and tacitly withdrawn or "corrected" at the end of the news cycle.
Indeed, a press conference by Democratic candidate Joe Biden was the picture of deference and decency as reporters pounded the White House with furious questions about Atlantic history. Reporters seemed to go out of their way to confirm months of criticism of Biden's softball treatment. Atlantic staff writer Edward Isaac Dovere asked Biden, "When you hear these remarks – 'fools', 'losers' withdrawing from amputees – what does it tell you about the soul of President Trump and the life he leads?"
There was a time when a statement in a major publication was considered true. However, my children do not have such a guess via a news source. I'm not more worrisome these days either. The Atlantic article embodies the discomfort of movement journalism. It was the repository of all things anti-Trump, with articles like "Donald Trump, the most unmanly president" and "Donald Trump is a broken man". Earlier claims in the Atlantic about the Trump campaign, such as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions' collaboration with Russians, have been exposed through the Special Envoy's investigation. In an era of echo chamber journalism, The Atlantic is deafening.
The alleged core comment, attributed to unnamed sources, has been rejected by a number of officials who were with Trump in France at the time, including figures such as former National Security Advisor John Bolton. The article also states that Trump did not visit the cemetery in part because of concerns that the rainy day would mess up his hair, but White House documents show that, as stated at the time, the military told its staff that the presidential helicopter should be grounded. Bolton has confirmed that the weather was the cause and stated that if this story were true, he would have made it a chapter in his anti-Trump book. Trump might not have wanted to leave, but the reason was a bad helicopter day, not a bad day.
Other allegations include Trump mocking the death of General John Kelly's son at his Arlington burial site. Kelly did not comment on whether Trump expressed his disbelief that such men would give their lives for their country: "I don't get it. What was in it for you?" Kelly should now confirm or reject it. In fact, what is true, what many of us fail to understand, is why Kelly would not only ignore such a hideous question but continue to serve as Trump's Homeland Security Secretary and later White House Chief of Staff.
This week's real story isn't whether Trump or The Atlantic are lying, but why both possibilities are considered equally plausible. The public is left with an incredible story told by two equally incredible sources. This is the real story – and a really sad one.
Jonathan Turley is Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online at JonathanTurley.