Joe Biden angrily accused Donald Trump of disparaging America’s war dead, seizing on a disputed magazine report to argue the president has a history of belittling fallen US soldiers.
The criticism from the Democratic presidential nominee followed a story in The Atlantic magazine reporting Mr Trump had dismissed US Marines killed in a pivotal first world war battle as “suckers” and “losers” during a 2018 visit to France.
“Quite frankly, if what is written in The Atlantic is true, it affirms what most of us believe to be true — that Donald Trump is not fit to be the job of president and be the commander-in-chief,” Mr Biden said during a speech from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
“The president should humbly apologise to every Gold Star mother and father, to every Blue Star family that he’s denigrated and insulted. Who the heck does he think he is?” he added, using military terms for families of living and dead service members.
Mr Trump and senior White House officials vigorously denied the account of the president’s failure to visit an American military cemetery in France during inclement weather, noting that others on the trip — including John Bolton, the former national security adviser who has openly criticised Mr Trump — would not corroborate the story.
“It’s a fake story and it’s a disgrace that they’re allowed to do it,” Mr Trump told reporters.
“I don’t believe a word of what’s in The Atlantic article,” added Robert O’Brien, who replaced Mr Bolton as Mr Trump’s national security adviser.
Trump vs Biden: who is leading the 2020 election polls?
Use the FT’s interactive calculator to see which states matter most in winning the presidency
Shortly after Mr Biden’s remarks, Mr Trump abruptly reversed course and announced the Pentagon would not cut funding for Stars and Stripes, the government-funded independent military news organisation that has served members of the US armed forces since the mid-19th century.
Mr Biden and other critics of the US president noted that The Atlantic account fitted a pattern of dismissing soldiers who were captured, injured or killed in action. In one notable incident, Mr Trump in 2015 attacked John McCain, the late Republican senator from Arizona who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, for being a “loser”.
“I like people who weren’t captured,” Mr Trump said at the time.
Mr Biden noted that Mr Trump had also failed to confront Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, about reports the Kremlin had secretly offered bounties for the killing of US troops in Afghanistan.
During the 2016 campaign, Mr Trump drew backlash — including from billionaire investor Warren Buffett — over comments attacking the parents of a slain Muslim-American soldier.
The Atlantic story reported Mr Trump cancelled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, where more than 2,000 US soldiers, many of them Marines who fought during a decisive first world war battle, are buried because he feared that his hair would be disheveled by rain.
“Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” he said, according to the report.
Even as Mr Trump denied The Atlantic’s account, he used an evening news conference to disparage John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general who served as the president’s chief of staff.
The Atlantic story reported Mr Trump visited the Arlington National Cemetery grave of Mr Kelly’s son — a Marine officer who was killed in Afghanistan — and asked his chief of staff, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
While Mr Trump said he was not sure if Mr Kelly was the source for the magazine story, he dismissed the retired general as having “no temperament”.
“This man was totally exhausted he wasn’t even able to function in the last number of months; he was not able to function,” Mr Trump said. “He got eaten alive. He was unable to handle the pressure of this job.”
A Military Times poll conducted last month showed that Mr Trump’s support among active-duty military members had been slipping, with 37.4 per cent supporting the incumbent president compared with 41.3 per cent backing Mr Biden.
Get alerts on US presidential election 2020 when a new story is published