In several conversations since the story was published Thursday, Trump vigorously denied that he made the comments and touted what he’s done for the military. Two people who spoke with him said it was clearly a sign of how much the story had resonated with Trump — and his fear that it could hurt his support with the military.
When the story first appeared on Thursday, Trump was outraged during his flight from Pennsylvania and demanded that aides begin denying it. That included sending his chief of staff Mark Meadows to the back of Air Force One to tell reporters it wasn’t true. His angered reaction prompted officials to mobilize the massive pushback effort that began Thursday night.
By the weekend, however, Trump appeared more deflated than outraged at the allegations lobbed against him, based on conversations he had.
On Tuesday morning, Meadows claimed that Trump wasn’t referencing Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a former top lobbyist for Raytheon, or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, when he made the comments — though it’s not clear who Trump would have been referencing instead.
“All the President is saying is that over the decades, some senior career politicians and Pentagon officials have shown an unwillingness to end our endless wars,” a White House official told CNN. “This President stands with our soldiers serving on the front lines and our great generals and wants to responsibly end these conflicts to bring our troops home.”
Trump’s relationship with Esper has deteriorated significantly, and CNN has reported he will almost surely be replaced if Trump is re-elected.
It’s also not clear how Trump’s disparagement of the “military industrial complex” fits within his efforts to broker arms sales overseas — a central element of his foreign policy — including to countries like Saudi Arabia.
But it has been obvious to some that denials from people who could stifle the story have not materialized, including the former chief of staff John Kelly or Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. Kelly and Dunford traveled to the Aisne-Marne cemetery instead of Trump when his trip was canceled because of rain.
As time passes, three Trump campaign advisers said the prevailing sentiment inside the campaign is that the allegations will begin to lose their punch unless the sources behind the story go public.
“Anonymous hits don’t have the same impact,” one of the advisers said.
“Kelly, Mattis or McMaster speaking out would have an impact,” the adviser continued.
Kelly, former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former national security adviser HR McMaster have not been named as sources for The Atlantic story.
“If they were going to come out, they would have already,” another Trump adviser said.
The Trump campaign has circulated news stories from conservative media to its surrogates to arm allies and aides with talking points to assail The Atlantic report. One adviser conceded the piece initially damaged Trump, likening the report to the Access Hollywood video that surfaced in the 2016 campaign, describing both stories as creating a “ton of noise but zero impact.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN’s JIm Acosta contributed to this report.