Trump

Did the president smear service members? Most voters have made up their minds.

Being Colorado’s Republican and military stronghold, El Paso County could play a pivotal role in how close President Donald Trump comes to winning the state.

So it’s fair to ask how local voters in an area with five military installations, 40,000 active duty troops and nearly 70,000 veterans living in its congressional district take to the commander-in-chief allegedly calling those who made the ultimate sacrifice “losers” and “suckers,” as reported in the The Atlantic.

As expected, die-hard supporters have lashed out at the messenger, calling the report a “baseless and blatant smear.”

Others say Trump’s comments could deter military members from backing him. Or, as one retired general observed, the comments might have no impact at all, because most people already have made up their minds.

At issue are Trump’s reported comments in a Sept. 3 article by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief. The article focused on Trump’s alleged comments in 2018 when he claimed a helicopter couldn’t fly in the rain to take him to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris.

The real reason, according to Goldberg’s unnamed sources with first-hand knowledge of the day’s events, was he “feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain” and because “he did not believe it important to honor American war dead.”

“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” Goldberg quoted Trump as saying to senior staffers. In another conversation on the same trip, he referred to the hundreds of marines killed at Belleau Wood as “suckers,” Goldberg reported.

The article also noted Trump’s past derogatory remarks about military members, such as when he said Sen. John McCain, held captive for five years by the North Vietnamese, was “not a hero ... I like people who weren’t captured.” Or, his saying the late President George H.W. Bush was “a loser” for being shot down by the Japanese during World War II.

Several other news organizations, including Trump’s favored Fox News, have since substantiated portions of the report. But Trump and his allies labeled the report false, including Congressman Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, who called the magazine article “more ‘fake news’ such as we have seen many times from the Left.”

Colorado Springs City Councilor Andy Pico, a Navy veteran who’s running for State House District 16, predicts “zero impact” on election results here.

“An ugly, baseless and blatant smear by ‘anonymous’ gutless cowards that has been thoroughly refuted by a dozen witnesses who were there at the time, two years ago, is seen for the unethically dishonest fabrication that it is,” Pico says via email.

Another doubter is Gen. William Shelton, former Air Force Space Command commander, who tells the Indy in an email, “I have read varying reports on whether the President actually said these things.”

City Councilor Bill Murray, an Army vet, says there’s “great probability” Trump said those things, but it likely won’t have an impact on local election results. “We now get to choose what news is fake,” he says.

Others simply sidestepped the question.

City Councilor Tom Strand wouldn’t comment, and Councilor Jill Gaebler didn’t respond, while Councilor Don Knight tells the Indy in an email that his voting decisions are based on “a multitude of data points and not just a single statement and not just a single issue.” All are Air Force vets.

Also not responding to questions: several retired generals who live in Colorado Springs, as well as three El Paso County commissioners, all Republicans, who served in the military — Mark Waller, Longinos Gonzalez Jr. and Stan VanderWerf.

Retired Brig. Gen. Martin France, a 41-year veteran and lifelong Republican, and Democrat retired Major Gen. Irv Halter, who ran against Lamborn in 2014, had plenty to say, however.

“The comments are consistent with past offensive comments about Senator [John] McCain and others,” France notes. “Plus, I think the corroboration has been strong enough to remove any doubt from all but the most committed members of Trump’s cult of personality.”

That said, France says Trump’s comments likely won’t move the needle locally for two reasons: Few voters remain undecided, and many “less conservative” officers and enlisted personnel cast absentee ballots in home states outside Colorado.

Trump’s base will find ways to excuse, deny or discredit the news report, he says, though that could change if witnesses step forward.

“What surprises me,” Halter says by phone, “is so many people are being silent about this.”

He points to Trump calling Pentagon leaders “a bunch of pussies,” as quoted in Bob Woodward’s recently released book Rage, as well as Trump’s public statements in recent days saying generals are only interested in fighting wars “so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.”

Says Halter, who personally knows several past and current members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “That is absolute bullshit.

“As senior officers,” he adds, “we did everything we could [do] not to go to war, and if we did, we wanted to prosecute it as quickly as possible, because we knew the sacrifice it was going to take.”

As to how that reads locally, only Election Day will tell, he says. What voters say publicly and how they vote are separate things, Halter says, noting when he ran against Lamborn, many business and political leaders told him privately they’d vote for him but refused to openly endorse him, fearing a backlash in a district that’s voted solidly red for decades.(Though as of Sept. 1, unaffiliated voters in Congressional District 5 — and El Paso County — outnumber Republicans, according to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.)

Those who watch politics for a living say Trump’s disparagement of the military could cost him big.

While his “rock-hard base” won’t budge, they’re in the minority; picking up undecided votes, like Trump did in 2016 to win, won’t be so easy now, because most people have made up their minds, says Eric Sondermann, an independent political analyst from Colorado.

“Every misstep hurts that effort,” he says. “Given the prevalence of military families across El Paso County, of course such remarks carry even more negative resonance and potential risk.”

Floyd Ciruli, political analyst in Denver, notes the explosive Atlantic story followed a Military Times/Syracuse University poll released in August that showed Trump’s military support waning. Democrat Joe Biden was favored by 41 percent of military members, compared to Trump’s 37 percent, which represented a 9-point drop in his favorability since taking office.

“My sense is these soldiers are like everybody else,” Ciruli says. “They’re affected by cultural issues. Them hearing that he called soldiers that made the sacrifice suckers and losers, if they’re inclined to want a reason to not support him, that’s a good one.” 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.