There were two moments during her interview on “Good Morning America” when the expression of the face of Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, was transformed by a sudden smile. One came when George Stephanopoulos asked if it was true that she and La David—who was twenty-five when he died, three weeks ago, in Niger—had met when they were just six years old. “Yes, sir,” Johnson said. The other was when he mentioned that she was expecting her third child, a daughter, in January. Her oldest child is six now. Those are circumstances that could overwhelm anyone. But Johnson, throughout the six-and-a-half-minute interview, was steady, calm, and focussed on two goals: asking for answers about how her husband had died, and standing up to President Donald Trump, who, she said, when he called her, “couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”
“He told me he had my husband’s report in front of him, and that’s when he actually said ‘La David,’ ” Johnson said. “I heard him stumbling on, trying to remember my husband’s name, and that’s what hurt the most, because, if my husband is out there fighting for our country, why can’t you remember his name?”
It’s a good question, and there might have been a charitable answer—Trump’s own emotion about the difficult task at hand, perhaps. But then the President responded by—in effect—calling Johnson, a Gold Star widow, a liar. Soon after the “Good Morning America” broadcast, Trump tweeted, “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!” There were no accompanying words of compassion for Johnson, who said that the call “made me cry even worse.” Beyond the lack of empathy, this is a steep escalation of Trump’s claims that Representative Frederica Wilson, who was in a car with Johnson during the call, and said that the President had not been respectful, had “totally fabricated” her account of it. Trump has taken to calling Wilson “wacky”; his chief of staff, the retired general John Kelly, called her an “empty barrel” in a press conference last week, and put out a story about watching in disbelief as she grandstanded during an F.B.I. ceremony a number of years ago—a story that was, as a video of the event proves, demonstrably false. Trump and Kelly derided Wilson for presuming to speak on behalf of a grieving widow—indeed, for presuming to speak up at all in a way that was critical of the President. Did they think that Myeshia Johnson would not speak up for Wilson? If so, they were wrong.
When Stephanopoulos said, “The President said that the congresswoman was lying about the phone call,” Johnson did not hesitate. “Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not ‘fabricated,’ ” she said, speaking evenly. “What she said was one hundred per cent correct.” It was all on speakerphone, she said. “Why would we fabricate something like that?” The Trumpian answer is that, if it makes the President look bad, it must be a lie.
Johnson, like Wilson, said that the President told her that her husband “knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway.” As she recounted that, she gave Stephanopoulos a quizzical look, as if wondering, not for the first time, where Trump had been going with that. She continued, “And it made me cry, because I was very angry at the tone of his voice.” (Wilson said that the tone sounded almost like that of someone making a joke.) Kelly, in his press conference, suggested that Trump’s statements might have been a mangled version of words that Kelly had found comforting when his son Robert died in combat, and had repeated to Trump when the President asked for advice on the call. Perhaps Kelly, knowing his customer, should have skipped the more philosophical notions and drilled in on the basics: make sure you know the name; connect. (It is telling that what Trump saw as his “nice” conversation with Johnson was apparently one-sided; she told Stephanopoulos that she just listened while he did all the talking.) And, if you get it wrong, be honest about it; don’t lie.
Myeshia Johnson also addressed a point that seems to have particularly outraged Kelly: that Wilson was listening in on the call, which he portrayed as a violation of something “sacred.” It was an odd complaint, given that Kelly himself had listened in, too, but Johnson put it to rest with a reminder that she was an actor in all this, rather than just a symbol. “I asked Master Sergeant Neil to put his phone on speaker, so my aunt and uncle could hear as well,” she said, referring to the service member assigned to them, who was on the line with the White House, and to her husband’s aunt and uncle, who raised him after his mother died when he was a small child. (They have been identified as his parents in some press accounts; his aunt, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, had earlier backed up Wilson’s account.) Wilson, Myeshia Johnson added, was there, too, because she had worked with La David’s uncle in an elementary school and had guided La David in a mentoring program called 5000 Role Models. “She’s been in our family since we were little kids,” Johnson said.
Kelly, in his press conference, talked about the people in the military being the best of America at a time “when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate but required.” He went on to say that he would only call on reporters who knew Gold Star families, a proposition that, in a democracy, has some hazardous implications. (Similarly alarming was a statement that the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, made last week, suggesting that Kelly’s former military rank exempted him from certain questions.) There is great selflessness and valor in the military, but there is heroism, too, in running mentoring programs and getting kids through school—becoming part of their families in a way that can also be regarded, to borrow Kelly’s word, as sacred.
In the video of the speech that Wilson gave which so offended Kelly, she asked members of law enforcement in the audience to stand up and be honored. It is hard to know what bothered Kelly about her appearance that day. Wilson herself, in an interview with the Times, said that she had no explanation—“I’m just flabbergasted,” she said—but she added, in regard to the general context of the affair, that the Administration is stocked with “white supremacists.” (The Times noted that she was not speaking about Kelly personally.) In any event, Trump might need to learn that there are women who will neither praise him nor stay quiet or shrink when he attacks. Some of them are Gold Star widows. Generals are not the only ones who get to speak, for military families or for the country.
Myeshia Johnson, as she has made clear, is not done. She knew that her husband was “an awesome soldier,” and that she could tell her unborn child that he was a hero. But she wanted to know, among other things, why it had taken the military two days to find her husband’s body, and to understand why she had been told that he had to have a closed casket. “They won’t show me a finger, a hand. I know my husband’s body from head to toe.” She added, “I don’t know how he got killed, where he got killed, or anything.” There are larger questions about the mission in Niger, which, according to an NBC News report, may have involved operational and intelligence failures.
“Are you confident you’re going to get the answers you need?” Stephanopoulos asked. “If I keep pushing for them, I will,” Johnson said. No doubt she will push, but this might also be the moment for Congress and others to give her some backup. She’s earned it.