President Trump on Monday disputed the criticism of a soldier's widow about his call to console her, escalating a week-old controversy over the president’s belated response to the deaths of four Americans following an Oct. 4 ambush of U.S. forces in Niger.
Two days after the funeral of her husband, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, Myeshia Johnson appeared on television to describe Trump’s call last week, confirming her congresswoman’s account that Trump couldn’t remember her husband’s name and that he upset her by saying her husband “knew what he signed up for” when he enlisted in the Army.
"It made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it," Johnson said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
“I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name. And that’s what hurt me the most. 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?” she said.
Within minutes, Trump had contested the widow’s account in a post on Twitter — just as he had for days disputed the congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat and Johnson family friend who was listening in on the call along with several others who were with Myeshia Johnson. In numerous interviews, Wilson criticized the president as insensitive.
Trump tweeted: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”
By taking on a Gold Star wife, Trump raised to a new level the controversy over his handling of one of the most important roles of a commander in chief — as consoler of families of the fallen. Already he was under fire for his attacks since last week against a member of Congress; he had called Wilson’s account a “total lie” and, as he does for many critics, called her by a pejorative nickname — “Wacky Congresswoman Wilson” — as recently as Sunday, in a tweet.
The controversy dominated cable news channels, which replayed the emotional interview of Myeshia Johnson, on a day when the president was hosting an afternoon ceremony at the White House to present the Medal of Honor to retired Army Capt. Gary M. Rose. Rose was cited for his valor as a medic during the Vietnam War caring for and saving scores of soldiers over days under siege in Laos, despite his own injuries.
Even as Trump participated in the ceremony, critics including current and former military officials were lamenting his response to Myeshia Johnson.
Earlier, Trump did not answer multiple shouted questions from reporters about his response to the widow, either before his Oval Office meeting with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong or later in the Rose Garden after a statement from the two leaders.
Sgt. Johnson, 25, was killed along with three other soldiers after an Oct. 4 ambush on a Special Forces patrol in Niger, an attack apparently carried out by militants affiliated with Islamic State. Johnson was initially unaccounted for after the attack. His body was found by Nigerien villagers after an intense two-day search.
The loss of life was the worst in combat to date since Trump took office, but for 12 days the president did not publicly comment on it. On Oct. 16, he was asked by a reporter at the White House why he’d been silent. He did not answer that question but instead described how he had made more phone calls to the families of service members killed in action than prior presidents.
That sparked immediate, outraged rebukes from officials in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. The flap then snowballed: After the White House disclosed that Trump subsequently called the families of the four soldiers killed in Niger, Wilson publicly conveyed Myeshia Johnson’s unhappiness with him; Trump called her a liar; and his chief of staff, John F. Kelly — a retired Marine general and a Gold Star father himself — excoriated Wilson, accusing her of actions that, a video proved, were false.
The episode has highlighted Trump’s sometimes uncomfortable relationship with the military and military service. Trump has promised to fund the military at historic levels and hired former generals including Kelly to his staff and Cabinet, but his brash and undisciplined style, and his willingness to contradict “my generals,” have often rankled top military officials. Early this year, for example, he blamed “the generals” for a botched raid in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL.
Amid the furor over the Niger ambush, Trump’s own lack of military service became an issue once again. On Sunday, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a longtime prisoner of war in the Vietnam years and a frequent critic and target of Trump, made a thinly veiled allusion in a television interview to Trump’s avoidance of the draft, with multiple deferments including for bone spurs in a foot.
McCain was pointing out the economic and class divisions that were apparent on the battlefields of Vietnam.
"One aspect of the conflict, by the way, that I will never, ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America, and the highest income level found a doctor that would say they had a bone spur," McCain said on C-SPAN3 during an interview about the Vietnam War.
"That is wrong. That is wrong. If we are going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve."