President Donald Trump referred to fallen US service members at the Aisne-Marne cemetery in crude and derogatory terms during a November 2018 trip to France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a former senior administration official confirmed to CNN.
Trump was supposed to go to an event at the cemetery during the trip, but rain and fog were blamed for him not being able to helicopter to the site. The White House then determined he could not motorcade to the location – 50 miles outside of Paris – because it would be too hard to try to secure the roads.
The former official, who declined to be named, largely confirmed reporting from Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic magazine, which cited sources who said Trump rejected the idea of a cemetery visit and proceeded to refer to the fallen soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.”
Trump has forcefully denied the report in The Atlantic.
Speaking to reporters after returning from a rally in Pennsylvania on Thursday, the President said the report was “a disgraceful situation.”
“To think that I would make statements negative to our military when nobody has done what I’ve done, with the budgets and the military budget. We’re getting pay raises for the military. It is a disgraceful situation, by a magazine that is a terrible magazine, I don’t read it,” he said.
The Atlantic specifically reported that Trump didn’t want to attend a ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France in 2018 because he was concerned that the rain would dishevel his hair.
CNN reporters in France during the President’s visit reported that local weather reports indicated there was a low ceiling and heavy rain in the area of the cemetery, and authorities at the time said there was not time to organize French security to cover a long motorcade route.
Trump insisted Thursday evening that the Secret Service had prevented him from attending the ceremony.
“I was ready to go to a ceremony. I had two of them, one the following day, it was pouring and I went to that. The reason it couldn’t fly because it was raining about as hard as I’ve ever seen, and on top of that it was very, very foggy and the helicopter was unable to fly,” he said.
The Secret Service, Trump recounted, “told me you can’t do it. I said I have to do that, I want to be there.”
Trump said he then “called home, I spoke to my wife and I said, ‘I hate this. I came here to go to that ceremony.’ And to the one that was the following day, which I did go to. I said I feel terribly. And that was the end of it.”
As CNN has reported, first lady Melania Trump was on the same trip and was scheduled to visit the cemetery with the President. She was not in the US.
In a rare move, the first lady weighed in on the story on Twitter Friday evening, calling it “not true.”
“It has become a very dangerous time when anonymous sources are believed above all else, & no one knows their motivation,” Melania Trump continued.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Friday that he never heard the President use the language described in the article, which he said he hadn’t read in its entirety.
“I’m a veteran too. I care deeply about these young men and women. I have watched the President honor them in every situation that I’ve been in with him as well,” Pompeo added.
Speaking at the White House Friday, national security adviser Robert O’Brien said “he’d never seen anything like” the description of the President in the magazine.
Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign used the report to slam Trump Thursday evening, saying in a statement that if the article is true, it is “yet another marker of how deeply President Trump and I disagree about the role of the President of the United States.” Biden condemned the President’s alleged comments in angry and personal terms during a Friday speech.
Trump went on to push back on reporting that he insulted the late Sen. John McCain, admitting he “was never a fan,” but insisting he “still respected him.”
“He had a first class, Triple-A funeral that lasted for nine days, by the way. I had to approve it. All of that had to be approved. And I approved it without hesitation and without complaint,” Trump said. “I felt he deserved it.”
“For somebody to say the things they say I said is a total lie,” he claimed. “What animal would say such a thing?”
Later Thursday, Trump falsely tweeted that he never called McCain a loser. As a presidential candidate in 2015, Trump said at an Iowa town hall, “I don’t like losers” in reference to McCain losing the 2008 presidential election.
Goldberg, who reported the article, defended his reporting on CNN Friday against the President’s denials.
“I have multiple sources telling me this is what happened, and so I stand by it,” Goldberg said.
This story has been updated with additional background.