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Pentagon chief says Trump has respect for troops, after report said he disparaged war dead

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Friday that President Donald Trump respects American troops and veterans after a magazine report said Trump had called fallen U.S. military personnel buried in Europe “losers” and declined to visit an American cemetery because he thought it unimportant.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 4, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

“President Trump has the highest respect and admiration for our nation’s military members, veterans and families. That is why he has fought for greater pay and more funding for our armed forces,” Esper said in a statement.

Trump on Thursday strongly denied the report from the Atlantic magazine.

The Atlantic reported that Trump, a Republican running for re-election who has touted his record helping U.S. veterans, had referred to Marines buried in an American cemetery near Paris as “losers” and declined to visit in 2018 because of concern the rain that day would mess up his hair. The Atlantic report was sourced to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion of that day.

“To think that I would make statements negative to our military and fallen heroes when nobody has done what I’ve done,” for the U.S. armed forces, Trump said. “It’s a total lie. ... It’s a disgrace.”

The president said he did not go to the cemetery because weather prevented a helicopter flight. The alternative, a long drive, would have meant going through very busy areas of Paris, and the Secret Service objected, he said.

A senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Esper had not heard of the allegations made in the Atlantic until today.

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who is leading Trump in national polls ahead of the Nov. 3 election, said that, if true, the comments were “deplorable.”

“It is absolutely damnable,” Biden said. “It’s a disgrace.”

There is increasing concern that Trump is politicizing America’s military, which is meant to be apolitical, ahead of the election.

Those concerns came to a head in the past month after Trump threatened to deploy active duty troops to quell civil unrest in U.S. cities over the killing of George Floyd, who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler

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