Should we believe the story, reported by the Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, that President Trump made disparaging comments about American soldiers who died in Normandy? I don’t. Trump has a very nasty side, but I doubt he made the nasty comments Goldberg’s attributes to him.
For one thing, it’s not Trump’s practice to disparage people who haven’t disparaged him. Sure, he expressed a lack of respect for John McCain’s war heroism. But that was because McCain was a political enemy. Trump has no beef with soldiers who died in Normandy many decades ago.
Moreover, John Bolton, who was present when Trump supposedly made his disparaging comments, says it didn’t happen. Bolton is not friend of the president. In fact, his memoir of his time at the White House paints a disparaging picture of Trump, and includes reports of statements that cast the president in a very negative light. The fact that Bolton has gone on the record defending Trump in this instance is telling.
It’s also telling that none of Goldberg’s sources has gone on the record. As Glenn Greenwald says:
Goldberg claims that “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day” — whom the magazine refuses to name because they fear “angry tweets” — told him that Trump made these comments. Trump, as well as former aides who were present that day (including Sarah Huckabee Sanders and John Bolton), deny that the report is accurate.
So we have anonymous sources making claims on one side, and Trump and former aides (including Bolton, now a harsh Trump critic) insisting that the story is inaccurate.
Goldberg notes that media sources other than the Atlantic say they have “confirmed” Goldberg’s report. However, he adds that the “confirmation” appears to consist of some of Goldberg’s unnamed sources repeating the same story. This confirms that the sources said what Goldberg reports, but not that they are telling the truth about what Trump said (and that Bolton is not).
It’s also possible that new sources aligned with the original sources and sharing their agenda have repeated their claims. As Greenwald says, “given that none of the sources making these claims have the courage to identify themselves, due to their fear of mean tweets, it is impossible to know.” (Emphasis added)
Greenwald sees parallels between the “confirmation” of Goldberg’s report and that of CNN’s fake news story from December 2017 that during the 2016 campaign, claiming that Donald Trump Jr. received a September 4 email with a secret encryption key that gave him advanced access to WikiLeaks’ servers containing the DNC emails which were released to the public ten days later. CNN’s claim was false. It misreported the date of the “smoking gun” email Trump, Jr. received. That email wasn’t sent to him ten days prior to WikiLeaks’ public release. It was sent after the public release of the DNC emails.
Like Goldberg’s hit piece, CNN’s bogus report was “confirmed” — in that case by MSNBC and CBS News. In both instances, anonymous sources whispered something to a media outlet hostile to Trump and the same anonymous sources, or their friends, whispered it to other outlets.
One of our readers, a distinguished conservative journalist, finds another, even more apt, parallel to Goldberg’s hit piece — Dan Rather’s “fake but accurate” claim that President George W. Bush shirked his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War.
Rather’s story appeared at almost the exact same point in the campaign cycle as Goldberg’s — shortly after the Republican incumbent had an unexpectedly successful convention that produced a bounce. Both stories involve allege disparagement by the Republican incumbent of military service — Bush’s by deed, Trump’s by word.
To round things off, Rather is now promoting Goldberg’s story. He tweeted, “Fox News reporting seems to confirm much of what was in @TheAtlantic report by @JeffreyGoldberg.”
Fox News’ “confirmation” is the kind described by Greenwald.
There is one difference between the two hit pieces. Rather’s contained “evidence” — e.g. a typewritten memo — that enabled critics like Scott and John to debunk it. Goldberg’s is devoid of evidence other than the say-so of anonymous sources.
Can we say with certainty that Goldberg’s report is false? No. We can only say that, as in the case of Rather’s, there is no sound reason to believe it.