Donald Trump goes off the verbal rails again, this time while attempting to console a grieving South Florida family.
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
WASHINGTON – President Trump kept silent on the deaths of four American soldiers for nearly two weeks, while finding time to tweet about “fake news” and Republicans’ fundraising, attack Puerto Ricans and a Republican senator, among others, and keep up his complaints against protesting professional football players.
When he finally spoke up on Monday about the deadliest combat incident of his presidency – and then only in answer to a reporter’s question – Trump started a furor that engulfed his chief of staff, predecessors from both parties, a Florida congresswoman and now one of the grieving families of the soldiers he was being asked to honor.
By Wednesday, the president was battling publicly with a Democratic congresswoman from Florida and the mother of the deceased soldier, Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, over the alleged insensitivity of his condolence call the day before.
The president’s actions shifted the normally private and somber functions of a commander in chief consoling grieving military families into the very public political arena.
The spat with the Johnsons and their congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida, followed Trump’s statements on Monday and Tuesday suggesting his predecessors hadn’t often made similar calls and questioning whether Obama had called retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, when he lost a son in Afghanistan in 2010.
On Wednesday, Trump accused Wilson of lying about his response to Johnson’s widow – that “he knew what he signed up for but when it happens it hurts anyway,” – and said he had proof of the conversation.
Wilson, who represents Miami Gardens, “totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action,” he wrote. “Sad!”
Wilson told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that she heard a call on speakerphone from Trump to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, who is pregnant and mother to Johnson’s two children. She took Trump’s call at 4:45 p.m., just before Johnson’s body arrived at Miami International Airport.
Wilson told CNN that other people in the car, including the driver, her press person, the master sergeant and the widow’s aunt and uncle had also heard the conversation.
Trump should be acting presidential “instead of calling me a liar and calling everyone else in the car a liar,” she said. “He doesn’t even know how to sympathize with people.”
‘Fighting the wrong one’
“I wasn’t in the car by myself. I’ll fight Mr. Trump toe-to-toe. He’s fighting the wrong one now. He doesn’t need to start up anything with me. He said what he said and he needs to call her and say he’s sorry and go on and run the country before he takes us to war. He spends too much time on stuff that doesn’t have to do with running this country,” Wilson said.
Trump told reporters that he “had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.” Wilson, however, said there was no conversation.
“He did all the talking. She didn’t say nothing except when he got ready to hang up she said he was calling him, ‘Your guy.’ He didn’t even know his name. That’s what he said. ‘Your guy. Your guy.’
“I’m livid. He (Johnson) can’t even have an open-coffin funeral because his body is so messed up,” Wilson said.
Johnson, who had Myeshia’s name tattooed across his chest under his U.S. Army uniform, was saluted with a ceremonial homecoming at Miami International Airport.
His family, dignitaries and law enforcement officers all saluted Johnson as his casket, draped in the American flag, was wheeled out of a Delta Airlines plane en route to a Hollywood funeral home.
Former staffers to Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton were furious, and publicly attested to their former bosses’ contacts with grieving families. Trump’s staffers were caught off-guard. The former administration official called it a “cringe moment.”
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said the level of presidential attention to families of fallen soldiers depended in part on the scale of casualties and the technology of their eras.
It was impossible for presidents during major wars to personally console tens of thousands of families, he said, while modern presidents such as Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump – none of whom served in combat – carry a greater burden to weigh in both publicly and with private condolences.
President Jimmy Carter, he said, tried to reach out to even the distant relatives of Iran hostages, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, while serving as supreme commander of allied forces in World War II, would put on classical music on Sundays while he wrote letters to relatives of the dead.
Until Trump, these contacts were usually done discreetly. Trump “cheapened the process by staying silent and then being mealy-mouthed about it,” Brinkley said.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders blamed the White House’s military protocol office for the delay in contacting the four families, the media for sensationalizing the issue and the congresswoman for politicizing it. But others in Trump’s circle and outside observers turned some blame toward Trump and his advisers.
“This is a failure of the president’s staff,” said Sam Nunberg, a former political adviser. “The president would make these calls if it got to his desk. Ironically, his new chief of staff, John Kelly, who makes a point that he controls all information flow to the president, has failed the president here.”
A former administration official who demanded anonymity criticized Wilson, but also suggested this was another of Trump’s frequent self-inflicted wounds. “There are just some obvious do’s and don’ts,” the official said.
For Kelly to be drawn into the controversy was particularly poignant, given his own loss of a son and his well-known reluctance to talk about it.
Sanders would not say whether Trump had spoken with Kelly before invoking Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly’s death to imply criticism of Obama, but she did say that Kelly was “disgusted by the way this has been politicized.”
The four soldiers were killed while on patrol with about 20 Nigerien troops. The deaths of three – Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29 – were announced soon after the attack.
The patrol ambushed in Niger intended to meet with local leaders to discuss security when they were attacked by about 50 militants, believed to be affiliated with Islamic State forces, who fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from trucks and motorcycles.
The Pentagon initially did not release information on the ambush or the fact there was a fourth soldier missing. The surviving soldiers noticed his absence after they had pulled back from Niger’s border region near Mali, which is notorious for drug smuggling, human trafficking and myriad extremist militias, including allies of al-Qaida and Islamic State.
Johnson’s body was found two days later by locals after an all-out search had been launched.
All around the world
Since Trump took office, 19 service members have been killed in action across six countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Niger.
In all, U.S. special operations teams are deployed in 124 countries to train, advise and assist friendly forces, although most are focused in Africa and the Middle East. Trump has embraced special operations and given military commanders greater authority to launch attacks in Yemen and Somalia.