The remarks, reported first in The Atlantic magazine and corroborated by several outlets, including CNN, seemed so in character with Trump’s public persona that even an onslaught of denials from current and former officials did little to negate the impression that Trump is a man who sometimes says terrible things.
When excerpts soon followed of his former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen’s book portraying Trump as a cheat, liar, fraud, bully, racist, predator and con man, the surprise again failed to materialize – even though Cohen had worked intimately with Trump for years.
Now, as the presidential campaign begins its post-Labor Day finale, the question has become less about what Americans know of Trump’s character but whether they care.
Trump appears to be betting they don’t. He’s continued his attacks on war heroes and generals, even as he tries to claim utmost respect for the military. And he’s dismissing efforts to reckon with the country’s racist past, even as he works to convince suburban White voters he’s not racist himself.
Just as voters’ threshold for bad behavior was tested in the final days of 2016, when Trump’s vulgar on-camera comments about molesting women rocked the race, Americans this time around find themselves again forced to decide whether Trump’s character really matters to them. In the broad scheme of things back then, it didn’t and he won.
But 2020 could be different: since that race, voters have been bombarded with more examples of the President using crude, sexist or racist language, erasing any notion the office might change him and throwing the country’s politics into turmoil.
An election about character
At its heart, the 2020 presidential campaign has always been about character. Even a life-altering pandemic, an economic calamity and a national racial reckoning have become tests of the incumbent’s constitution: Whether Trump cared enough to confront a health crisis, whether he understood the suffering of out-of-work Americans and whether he could speak with compassion to those who have historically been oppressed in the United States.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, has expressly made Trump’s character the central argument of his campaign, and has been candid that he might not be running for president right now if the incumbent were a traditional Republican and not someone who – in Biden’s telling – lacks the moral authority to lead the country.
He’s sought to cast himself as Trump’s moral opposite – and on Sunday, a few minutes after the President arrived for the 296th visit of his presidency to one of his golf clubs, Biden was arriving at church services at St. Joseph on the Brandywine in Wilmington, Delaware.
Even Republicans appeared to acknowledge that character will play a central role in voters’ decision-making in November, programming their convention last month with personal testimonies to rebut suggestions that Trump is uncaring, sexist or racist in the hopes of wooing suburban voters who have been turned off by the President’s behavior.
Yet based on polls, which have remained mostly steady since the convention, those arguments did little to reverse what have become hardened views of Trump as uncaring, disrespectful and churlish. And it’s that impression of the President – which he hasn’t always attempted to rebut – that makes the allegations lodged this week so difficult for him to shake.
“If this is true it’s really reprehensible. The problem is, it is believable given the President’s past behavior and statements he made, most notably about Sen. McCain,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said on CNN.
After The Atlantic article published, CNN’s Jim Acosta reported that a former senior administration official confirmed Trump referred to fallen US service members at the Aisne-Marne cemetery in France in crude and derogatory terms during a November 2018 trip to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
A person familiar with Trump’s views also said he has repeatedly questioned why Americans who served in Vietnam went to war, suggesting that veterans of that conflict didn’t know how to exploit the system to get out of serving. Trump received a draft deferment for bone spurs. The same source said Trump has also questioned why Americans would sign up to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, wondering aloud, “What did they get out of it?”
Trump has been so enraged by the article that aides began lining up statements of denial nearly as soon as it published, people familiar with the matter said. Trump himself issued a forceful denial standing on a pitch-black tarmac Thursday evening, not seeming to notice there were no lights to illuminate his statement.
“Absolutely not,” Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie said when asked by CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday whether he’d ever heard the President disparage veterans. “And I would be offended too if I thought it was true.”
Hardly anything new
But despite the coordinated chorus of current and former administration officials insistent the President has never been anything but reverent toward American service members, it remains true that some of what is contained in the article has either happened in public or echoes things the President has said in the past.
Even in his attempts to rebut the allegation he disrespects US military members, Trump lashed out at his former chief of staff John Kelly – a decorated retired Marine Corps general – and took a swipe at the late Sen. John McCain, whose treatment by Trump was a central element to The Atlantic story.
Similarly, the depictions of Trump as racist contained in Cohen’s book would seem more revelatory if the President hadn’t fomented a racist conspiracy theory about his predecessor or repeatedly insulted his Black critics’ intelligence.
In his book, Cohen recounts Trump ranting about Barack Obama after he won the presidency in 2008, quoting him as saying, “Tell me one country run by a black person that isn’t a sh*thole…They are all complete f*cking toilets.” After Nelson Mandela died, Trump allegedly said of South Africa that “Mandela f*cked the whole country up. Now it’s a sh*thole. F*ck Mandela. He was no leader.”
It’s accounts like that which prompted Republicans to line up a roster of African Americans during their convention last month to insist the President is not a racist and cares about racial harmony.
But since then, Trump has dismissed the idea that structural racism even exists in the United States – including during a controversial visit to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back. Asked by a reporter whether he believed systemic racism exists, Trump chose to focus instead on violence occurring during demonstrations.
On Friday, Trump seemed to codify that view into federal policy. His budget chief instructed heads of federal agencies to dramatically alter racial sensitivity training programs for employees, saying funding would be pulled from sessions related to “white privilege” and “critical race theory,” which he deemed “un-American propaganda.”
And on Sunday, Trump said the US Department of Education would investigate whether California schools are using the New York Times’ “1619 Project” in public school curriculum. The Pulitzer-Prize winning collection reframes American history around the date of August 1619, when the first slave ship arrived on America’s shores.
The moves follow the President’s pattern of lampooning attempts to process or reckon with the country’s fraught racial history.
In the view of Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris – the first Black and South Asian American woman on a major party ticket – the avoidance of the issue exposes a character flaw.
“I don’t think that most reasonable people who are paying attention to the facts would dispute that there are racial disparities and a system that has engaged in racism in terms of how the laws have been enforced,” said Harris, a California senator and former state attorney general, in an exclusive interview with Bash on CNN. “It does us no good to deny that. Let’s just deal with it. Let’s be honest. These might be difficult conversations for some, but they’re not difficult conversations for leaders, not for real leaders.”