The controversy over President Trump’s treatment of fallen service members escalated Monday, its eighth straight day, when the grieving widow of one of four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger broke her silence and described how the president’s blunders on his condolence call left her angry and in tears.
Though Trump insisted he had been “very respectful,” the widow, Myeshia Johnson, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that Trump told her that her husband “knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway.” She said the president’s comments “made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice.”
Johnson said that Trump did most of the speaking on their call, which occurred last Tuesday, and that he did not seem to remember the name of her husband, Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger on Oct. 4 under circumstances that military officials have not fully explained.
“I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name,” Johnson told ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos. “And that’s what hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country, and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name? And that’s what made me upset and cry even more, because my husband was an awesome soldier.”
Trump rejected Johnson’s account, tweeting about an hour after the interview was broadcast: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”
Trump ignored questions about the issue shouted by reporters later in the day.
The fight pitting the commander in chief’s words against those of the pregnant widow of a fallen soldier — as well as those of Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), a friend of the Johnson family who has detailed and sharply criticized Trump’s handling of the condolence call — has distracted from the administration’s agenda.
The episode has also threatened to stain the credibility of White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general who lost one of his sons in the war in Afghanistan, and who had been viewed by many in Washington as a key moral authority in the administration.
“We’re cruising toward a war with North Korea, and for eight days we’ve watched inane behavior by the president, Congresswoman Wilson and the chattering class in Washington,” retired four-star Army general Barry McCaffrey said. “It really makes me sick, to be honest. I’m sure his phone call with the widow was absolutely disastrous. He wings stuff. He doesn’t have any empathy. But I think there’s a larger issue: What are we doing here?”
Reflecting on the past eight days, McCaffrey added, “I’m starting to wonder if the country’s losing its moorings.”
The drama began last Monday with a falsehood by Trump. A reporter asked him during a news conference why he had been silent for 12 days about the deaths of four soldiers in Niger, the deadliest combat incident since he took office. Trump responded defensively, falsely asserting that his predecessors, including President Barack Obama, never or rarely called family members of service members who were killed on their watch. In fact, they regularly did.
Trump’s actions since then have followed a careful formula that he long ago devised for winning a skirmish and that has been described by senior White House advisers: Make it a fight, use controversy to elevate the message and never apologize.
The conflict bears all the hallmarks of a typical Trump rumble: over-broad boasts, inconsistent official accounts, tweeted name-calling, partisan attacks, aides ensnared in controversy and a steady effort to pin the blame for the whole hullabaloo on the news media.
“Trump grew up in a New York PR and media environment of Page Six beefing and gossiping, so he looks at his whole life through that window,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist and a vocal Trump critic. “His philosophy of always fighting back is morally divorced from any other situation. And to stay in Trump’s good graces, his aides have to play that game.”
Trump’s treatment of the Johnson family and his mockery of Wilson have reopened wounds with African Americans, many of whom see a pattern of racial prejudice by this president, noting his past attacks on ESPN sportscaster Jemele Hill, former national security adviser Susan E. Rice and other black women.
“We are sick and tired of women being undermined, being dismissed, and black women in particular,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a longtime member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Monday on MSNBC as she defended Wilson’s integrity.
Brittany Packnett, an activist affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, said in a tweet that Trump’s treatment of Johnson is representative of something bigger: “Donald Trump doesn’t respect black women.”
In a drama that has inflamed Americans on both sides of the political spectrum, Trump and Kelly disregarded Washington conventions of civility, personal reputation and fidelity to fact.
Without Trump’s rules of engagement, the bungled effort to soothe a mourning widow could easily have been resolved with a simple statement of clarification from the president. But Trump chose otherwise, and Kelly followed him into the breach, along with White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Initially lost in the fireworks was Johnson, the widow whose feelings had been channeled by Cowanda Jones-Johnson, the soldier’s aunt who raised him as a son, and Wilson, a longtime family friend. Both women were in a limo with Johnson, driving to meet her husband’s body, when Trump called, and they overheard the conversation on speakerphone.
Trump initially denied Wilson’s account of the call as a “total fabrication” — even though Kelly later confirmed that he had coached Trump to say roughly what Wilson said he told Johnson — and repeatedly attacked the lawmaker as “wacky.” He tweeted that attention on her was “killing the Democrat Party!”
Kelly labeled Wilson an “empty barrel” and accused her of political grandstanding by falsely saying that she had inappropriately claimed credit in a 2015 speech for securing funding for a federal building. Video of the event shows that Wilson did no such thing, and the congresswoman has called on Kelly to apologize for what she termed “character assassination.”
Eighteen women from the Congressional Black Caucus demanded an apology from Kelly on Sunday. “Wilson’s integrity and credibility should not be challenged or undermined by such blatant lies,” their statement read.
For her part, Sanders amped up the attacks on Wilson by saying the congresswoman was “all hat, no cattle,” an apparent swipe at Wilson’s habit of wearing colorful sequined cowboy hats. Sanders refused to apologize for or correct Kelly’s false claim about Wilson, and she scolded reporters for fact-checking the chief of staff. Questioning a four-star general, she said, was “highly inappropriate.”
In close adherence to the Trump rules, the president and his aides escalated the fight, welcomed the controversy and refused to apologize. And it might have worked more effectively had the whole enterprise not ended with the president in a standoff with a mourning widow.
On Monday, Johnson for the first time spoke for herself on the issue, saying Wilson’s account of her call with Trump was “100 percent correct.”
“Why would we fabricate something like that?” Johnson told Stephanopoulos.
Asked if there was anything she wanted to say to Trump, Johnson replied: “No. I don’t have nothing to say to him.”
Kristine Phillips and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.