A deadly ambush in Niger, and quiet in Washington — until now
By Jackie Calmes and Sameea Kamal
Oct 18, 2017 | 1:10 PM
For nearly two weeks, President Trump was silent about an ambush in the north African nation of Niger on Oct. 4 that killed four American soldiers and wounded two. When he did speak, in answer to a reporter’s question on Monday, he provoked another multi-day controversy regarding a fallen soldier.
During his campaign, Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entry into the United States drew much-reported criticism from Khizr Khan, whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in Iraq in 2004. Trump in turn criticized Khizr Khan and his wife, Ghazala Khan, sparking a furor.
Now Trump’s reported comments on Tuesday to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger has spurred outrage yet again for his alleged insensitivity to a Gold Star family.
Here is a timeline of events giving rise to the latest controversy:
Militants attack U.S. and Niger forces
A patrol of American and Niger forces, departing a meeting with village officials, is ambushed by about 50 militants believed to have links to Islamic State. Four U.S. soldiers were killed; one was left behind, and his body was recovered by villagers two days later.
President Trump is told of the attack by his chief of staff, retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly.
A fourth body is found
The Pentagon announces the fourth body has been recovered near the site of the ambush. They don’t yet identify the soldier — Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25 -- but they do name the others: Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29.
When asked by reporters why Trump has not mentioned the deaths, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says, “We’re continuing to review and look into this.” She adds, “As we have more details, we’ll certainly let you guys know.”
Defense Secretary Mattis addresses the attack
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis makes his first public statements about the ambush. He says the patrol was “hit hard” in an area not previously considered dangerous, that French aircraft were there within a half-hour to evacuate casualties, and that the military would be reviewing operations to determine whether changes are needed.
“I completely reject the idea,” Mattis told reporters, that the response “was slow.”
Trump speaks to deaths for first time
Twelve days after the ambush, the president finally addresses the soldiers’ killings when he is asked by a reporter at the White House, “Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger?”
Rather than answer the question, Trump says he likes to call and write letters to families of slain service members, and adds that his predecessors didn’t do that, or didn’t do it often — a false statement that prompts aides to past presidents to refute him, some angrily.
Trump makes calls, one backfires
The White House says the president called family members of the soldiers. Later, Rep. Federica Wilson, a Democrat who had known Sgt. La David T. Johnson for years and was with his wife Myeshia Johnson when Trump called her in Florida, complains publicly that the president upset the widow by saying the soldier “must have known what he signed up for,” and that Trump seemed to not know the soldier’s name.
With tweet, it’s Trump vs. soldier’s family
On Twitter early Wednesday, Trump says Wilson, the congresswoman, “totally fabricated” her account of his call to Johnson’s widow. Wilson stands by her recounting, and Johnson’s mother corroborates her, saying the president “disrespected” the family.