Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie cited increased spending and support for veterans and troops Sunday as a defense against allegations President Donald Trump routinely disparaged the military and called those who fell in battle "losers" and "suckers."
"Absolutely not," Wilkie said on CNN's "State of the Union" when asked if he had ever heard Trump demean the military or veterans.
Wilkie, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve, added that he "would be offended too if I thought it was true," referring to an incendiary article in The Atlantic citing anonymous defense sources who said Trump leveled insults at military leaders and veterans.
"What I'm looking at is the Donald Trump I know. The Donald Trump who has turned around Veteran Affairs," Wilkie said.
Wilkie noted that the VA's budget is now above $200 billion for the first time and dismissed Trump's repeated false claims that he enacted the veterans Choice program on private health care options as a matter of "semantics."
The Choice program was put in place under the Obama administration in 2014 in response to a scandal over staggering VA appointment wait times. In June 2018, Trump signed the Mission Act, which greatly expanded the health care options at a cost that lawmakers initially estimated would be about $15 billion.
Wilkie said the Mission Act "actually expands choice to all veterans," and said the Obama administration's Choice program was "designed to fail."
"The proof of the pudding" on Trump's support for the VA is "what happened with veterans," Wilkie said. "There is a renaissance [at the VA] and it's all because of one man. I would also say the same for the U.S. military. I'm judging the president by what he's done as president."
Trump has heatedly denied making the statements attributed to him in the recent report.
Since the story was posted last Thursday, several news organizations and reporters, including Fox News Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin, have corroborated parts of the Atlantic story, also citing anonymous sources.
In a Twitter post Saturday, Trump said "Jennifer Griffin should be fired for this kind of reporting. Never even called us for comment. Fox News is gone!"
Griffin's reporting confirmed the charge that Trump had balked at providing support for the funeral service, or the lowering of flags to half-staff at the White House and federal buildings when Sen. John McCain died of cancer in August 2018.
Aboard Air Force One, and at a later White House news conference Friday, Trump acknowledged his long feud with McCain and said "I was not a fan." He did say that he had respect for the Silver Star recipient and Vietnam POW.
On CNN Sunday, Wilkie said it was "politics" when Trump disparaged McCain's war record on a campaign stop in Ames, Iowa, in July 2015.
"He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured," Trump said at the time.
"I was a friend of John McCain" and the McCain family, Wilkie said, "but I understand politics" and the inflammatory rhetoric associated with it.
However, McCain "absolutely" was a war hero, Wilkie said.
Wilkie also touched briefly on the insults Trump leveled Friday at retired Marine general and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who was instrumental in easing the concerns of veterans service organizations that the Mission Act would lead to privatization of VA health care.
At a White House news conference Friday, Trump suggested that Kelly may have been a source for the Atlantic story, and said Kelly was not up to the chief of staff's job and had to be told to resign. Kelly has not responded to requests for comment from Military.com or others.
On Memorial Day in 2017, Kelly escorted Trump to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the gravesite for many of the fallen from Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the gravemarkers is for Kelly's son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
In one of the most shocking allegations in the Atlantic story, Trump allegedly said to Kelly: "I don't get it. What was in it for them?"
Wilkie said he also had respect for Kelly.
"I agree both men are doing the best they can," he said.
Trump issued more denials Sunday that he ever disparaged veterans and the military, and also continued to charge that the Atlantic story was the result of biased reporting.
"The Democrats, together with the corrupt Fake News Media, have launched a massive Disinformation Campaign the likes of which has never been seen before. They will say anything, like their recent lies about me and the Military, and hope that it sticks... But #MAGA gets it!" Trump tweeted.
Later on CNN Sunday, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of the Atlantic and author of the story, said he expected new information to be reported confirming his reporting.
"I would fully expect more reporting to come out about this and more confirmation and new pieces of information in the coming days and weeks," Goldberg said on CNN's "Reliable Sources.'
"We have a responsibility and we're going to do it regardless of what he [Trump] says," Goldberg said. "We're not going to be intimidated by the president of the United States."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.