The sordid story of President Donald Trump’s attempt to smear President Barack Obama as being inattentive to the families of fallen troops took more turns on Wednesday. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from Florida, reported that, in what was meant to be a condolence call, Trump had made Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David T. Johnson, who was killed on October 4th, in Niger, at the age of twenty-five, break down in tears. “She said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name,’ ” Wilson told MSNBC, adding that she had heard much of the call on speakerphone. Wilson described Trump as “almost like joking. He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’—something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ ” Trump tweeted that he had “proof” that Wilson’s account was “totally fabricated”—an extraordinary response. Even if Trump did not, verbatim, use the words that Wilson remembered, surely learning that he had failed to console Myeshia Johnson, a grieving young woman who has two small children and is pregnant with a third, might have humbled him. He might have just regretted that he didn’t communicate well; he might have wished that he had done better. But, later in the day, he again said that Wilson had lied, and insisted that he’d had “a very nice conversation” with Johnson. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, pushed that line, saying that Trump was “completely respectful” and that is was “a disgrace of the media” to suggest anything else. As it happens, Sergeant Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, in an interview with the Washington Post, backed up Wilson, telling the paper, “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.” Will Trump call her a liar, too?
This chain of Trumpian insults began when the President, in a press conference on Monday that served primarily to humiliate Mitch McConnell, was asked why, in the two weeks since Johnson had died in Niger, along with Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Dustin Wright, and Jeremiah Johnson, he had not said anything publicly about their loss. Instead of answering, Trump went on a riff about how he planned to call the families—he had not done so yet, nor had the letters that he said he’d written been sent—and how this intention set him apart from, and above, other Presidents. “If you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said. “I like to call.” Before the press conference was over, he was asked to justify this statement, which did not tally with Barack and Michelle Obama’s reputation for reaching out to bereft military families with calls, meetings, visits to hospitals, and vigils at Dover Air Force Base, where the bodies of the dead arrived home. (One of Michelle Obama’s causes, as First Lady, was Joining Forces, an initiative that she began with Second Lady Jill Biden, to support military families.)
Photograph by U.S. Army Special Operations Command via AP
Trump, in response, partially qualified his remarks by saying that he’d “heard” that Obama didn’t call often, vaguely attributing this word on the street to “my generals.” A number of generals said that Obama had been nothing but deeply compassionate and attentive—but Trump thought he had a general whom he could throw into the fray. “You could ask General Kelly—did he get a call from Obama?” Trump asked Brian Kilmeade, of Fox News, in a radio interview. In 2010, when John Kelly, who is now Trump’s chief of staff, was a lieutenant general, his son, Robert, a Marine lieutenant, was killed in Afghanistan. Unnamed White House officials quickly let it be known that Kelly did not get a call, dragging Robert Kelly, who deserves better, into battle once again.
John Kelly, as of Wednesday afternoon, had not addressed the issue publicly. Sanders, in her press briefing, said that he and Trump had spoken “multiple times” on Tuesday and that his only anger was at those—meaning the media—who had “politicized” the situation. She also said that Kelly had been on the call with the Johnsons, and that he thought that Trump had been entirely respectful and had done “the best job he could under the circumstances,” thereby pitting the word of a father who had lost his son against that of a woman who had lost her son. It would, eventually, be useful to hear more about this from Kelly himself.
There are so many layers to a Trump attack that trying to make sense of one layer can obscure the others. Does it matter, for example, that the Obamas invited General Kelly and his wife to a White House breakfast for Gold Star families a couple of months after Robert’s death, seating them at Michelle’s table? Or that Robert had a wife, Heather, who would have been his next of kin and thus might have been contacted, too? Robert died during an intense period in the war in Afghanistan, when it might, logistically, have been difficult to have the President immediately call each family. Should the Kellys have been given special treatment because the General was a general? Does it matter that Trump, who claimed that he had called all, or “virtually” all the families of those who have died during his Presidency, seems, according to the A.P., to have missed a few? (One father who did receive a call told the Washington Post that Trump offered him twenty-five thousand dollars but never followed through; the White House says that the check has now gone out.)
Maybe none of that matters—not even the comments that Skip and Rhonda Rollins made to CNN when they encountered the Obamas on Veterans Day, in 2009, during an unannounced trip that the Obamas made to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the dead from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. The Rollinses were there to visit the grave of their son, Justin, who had died in Iraq in 2007, at the age of twenty-five, and Skip Rollins said that, even though he didn’t agree with President Obama politically, he and his wife were moved by the gesture. Why tally that at all? There is something dirty about a bragging contest built around comparative compassion; it is unseemly and un-Presidential. But the truth matters, and, with Trump, one needs to be alert to both the fine print and the big lie.
One needs, also, to return to the evaded questions. Does the Trump Administration have a coherent account of what happened in Niger, and an explanation of what might happen with the deployment of troops there? Does Trump understand how many people may die in the wars he casually talks about starting? Would he make all the phone calls then? More than that, does he accept that the deaths, for the troops’ families, have meanings that have nothing to do with him?