Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie defended President Donald Trump amid the controversy caused by a recent Atlantic report that cited unnamed sources claiming that Trump made disparaging comments about deceased U.S. service members.
Asked by CNN host Dana Bash about whether he had ever heard Trump making comments to such effect about veterans or U.S. service members, Wilkie responded "absolutely not."
She later asked him, "How can you be sure that that is not true especially since you weren't there?" referring to claims made in The Atlantic's report.
"Well, nobody's backing down from the anonymous sourcing on it, and some of these sources that you cite are general officers ... I've spent my entire life around the military and I've never known any general officers to hide behind the stars, so what I'm looking at is the Donald Trump that I know," he responded before proceeding to praise Trump for having "turned around" veterans affairs from what it was under the Obama administration.
When Wilkie ventured into talking about how Trump has improved veteran affairs, Bash interjected, "I really want to stay on topic because this is dominating the news, in a large part because the president is trying so be so aggressive in pushing back, the issue is that this is consistent with a pattern of public statements by the president."
The station then played a clip of Trump in 2015 when he was a presidential candidate, saying, "I never liked [McCain] that much after that because I don't like losers."
"He's a war hero," Trump was told.
"He's a war hero because he was captured, I like people who weren't captured, okay, I hate to tell you," Trump said at the time.
The outlet then cut back to the CNN host who said, "listening to that, the way he disparaged not just John McCain but all prisoners of war, do you understand why people might find the details of these stories we're hearing now believable?"
Wilkie told Bash, "I understand that in the passion of a campaign with two powerful personnel ... I was a friend with John McCain ... I understand politics, I understand name calling when it comes from both sides. All I can say is the proof in the pudding for us is what has happened to veterans in the last three years.
"I judge a man by his actions and the actions have been beneficial for veterans all across this country in ways that we've not seen since the end of World War II.
"And I would also say the same for the U.S. military. I was the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. I watched the president sign letters of condolences to those who've fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq, I was on the frontlines then.
"So I'm judging the president by what he's done as president," he said, adding that he "absolutely" thinks McCain was a war hero.
"This is an important law that allows some veterans to get healthcare from outside the VA system. I know president Trump expanded it in 2018, but why does he insist on repeating that he is responsible for passing it when it was president Obama?" Bash asked.
"The Obama initiative was designed to fail. It only gave few veterans choice, it had an expiration date, and they didn't pay their bills. I've spent the last two years trying to pay the bills left over from the Obama administration for the first time. And the president is absolutely right on this—all veterans have choice, it's permanent, the Obama administration's is temporary."
Bash interjected, "Right, but he said he passed the Veterans' Choice and Veterans Accountability Act—that literally was signed by President Obama."
"That's right, but you're talking about semantics as opposed to substance. We have given permanent choice, that's what the president is saying," Wilkie replied.