The presidential campaigns aren’t just debating military policy now. They’re debating basic respect for the military.

The fight over which candidate cares more about troops exploded on Friday night as Democratic and Republican operatives put service members and veterans at the center of their latest round of political sparring.

First, officials from the Democratic National Committee used spotlights to project “Trump Disrespected Our Troops” and “Our Troops Deserve Better Than Trump” onto the exterior of the Trump Hotel in Washington in response to accusations that President Donald Trump had made repeated offensive remarks against service members and veterans.

Shortly thereafter, Trump took to social media with a letter from nearly 700 former military members professing support for his “love and reverence for our military and veterans” in an open letter to the American public.

“President Trump has demonstrated his unwavering support for America’s service members time and time again,” stated the letter, whose signers included numerous prominent Republican lawmakers and party officials, controversial podcast host Wayne Dupree, and Medal of Honor recipients Clint Romesha, Gary Beikirch and Woody Williams.

“Moreover, he has spent countless hours as president visiting battlefields and cemeteries, honoring Gold Star families and comforting them in their grief, and praising wounded warriors and honoring their sacrifice … He has done more for our nation’s service members and veterans than any previous administration.”

Democratic Party leaders see it differently.

“Trump doesn’t know what it means to sacrifice for our country, and he clearly has no respect for the brave men and women who have,” said Democratic National Committee senior spokesperson and adviser Lily Adams. “Veterans and fallen soldiers should be venerated, not insulted and mocked by anyone, especially the commander in chief.”

The accelerating fight followed a controversial report in The Atlantic on Thursday quoting anonymous administration officials charging Trump with referring to fallen U.S. troops buried in France as “losers” and “suckers,” questioning why any American would join the military, and demanding that wounded veterans be kept out of planned parades because “nobody wants to see that.”

Some of the accusations were independently confirmed by multiple news outlets on Friday, including the Washington Post, Associated Press and Fox News. The White House and the president himself were quick to dispute the reports, calling them fabrications invented solely to hurt his re-election campaign.

“You look at what I’ve done for the United States military. I love those people,” Trump said during a press conference Friday afternoon. " I’ve gotten them pay raises when they didn’t get anything near what I’ve been able to do. I’ve rebuilt the United States military, now we’re including the Space Force. Nobody’s done more for them.

“And then when I have to have a report like that … I think it’s a disgrace.”

Earlier in the day, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called on the president to apologize for his reported remarks.

“If what was written in The Atlantic is true, it is disgusting and it affirms what most of us believe to be true: that Donald Trump is not fit to do the job of president or be the commander in chief,” he said.

“If these statements are true, the president should humbly apologize to every Gold Star mother and father, and every Blue Star family that he’s denigrated and insulted. Who the heck does he think he is?”

Trump has made his administration’s military funding boosts and veterans programs reforms a key pillar of his re-election campaign, and said Friday that “nobody feels more strongly about our soldiers, our wounded warriors, our soldiers that died in war than I do.”

Democratic Party officials are countering that with video from the 2016 presidential campaign where Trump attacked Sen. John McCain as a false war hero because he served time as a prisoner of war, and blasted Gold Star father Khizr Khan for his opposition to Trump’s candidacy.

In a Military Times Poll released earlier this week, 41 percent of active-duty participants said they would vote for Biden if the election were held today. Trump, whose popularity has declined in the Military Times polls over the last four years, drew 37 percent support.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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