It was almost too easy to predict what would happen.
A president who is infamous for his inability to show empathy tries to convince the media he is the most caring president ever. And it completely backfires.
President Donald Trump had been silent for more than a week about the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger, in what was the deadliest combat operation during his time in office. So it wasn’t surprising when a reporter questioned him during his Monday press conference about this topic.
“Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” the reporter asked.
Trump could have used the moment to talk about the fallen service members. But instead, as he often does, he made it about himself. He tried to brag about how compassionate and considerate he is.
“I’ve written them personal letters. ... I will, at some point during the period of time, call the parents and the families ― because I have done that, traditionally. ... So, the traditional way ― if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it,” Trump said.
Aides to previous presidents hit back on Trump’s claim, noting he is not the first president to call fallen service members’ families. Trump, feeling defensive, brought up his chief of staff John Kelly’s son ― who died serving in Afghanistan ― to make a political point: He noted that Obama did not call Kelly when his son died in 2010.
It’s not clear whether Kelly agreed to the politicization of his son. But in the past, he has been reluctant to talk about him and has asked that his death not be brought up. Several Obama advisers were shocked that Trump stooped to that level, and even the White House seemed uneasy with the whole thing; officials would confirm that Kelly never received a call from Obama, but they only agreed to do so anonymously.
The day after the press conference, Trump finally called the families of the service members killed in Niger. That move could have put the controversy to rest. But instead, it made Trump look even more insensitive.
Trump reportedly told Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” Those comments were relayed by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who is close to the family and was in the car when Trump called Johnson.
Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that Wilson was lying and said he had some sort of “proof.”
But later Wednesday, La David Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, confirmed that the president had shown “disrespect” to her family.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders created doubt that any proof of Trump’s statement would ever turn up, when she told reporters Wednesday afternoon that there was no recording made of the phone call.
Sanders said it was a “disgrace” for the media to characterize Trump’s “act of kindness” as an act of callousness, and she went after Wilson for speaking out. She refused, however, to say whether Trump had used the words Wilson claimed he said.
“The president’s call, as accounted by multiple people in the room, believe that the president was completely respectful, very sympathetic, and expressed the condolences of himself and the rest of the country, and thanked the family for their service, commended them for having an American hero in their family, and I don’t know how you can take that any other way,” she said.
A reporter also asked her whether Kelly signed off on Trump’s political use of his son’s death; Sanders said she was “unsure” if he did.
In a statement Wednesday, Wilson said she stood “firmly” by her account of Trump’s call.
“This is personal for me, not political,” she said. “Sgt. Johnson was a member of my community and of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project that I founded to help boys of color build successful futures. ... The loved ones Sgt. Johnson leaves behind are my constituents and my job now is to do all that I can to help them heal. I’ll save the bully pulpit for the necessary task of uncovering the circumstances surrounding the ambush and working to help ensure that our soldiers have all of the resources and support that they need while putting their lives on the line to keep others safe.”
Later Wednesday, the news kept getting worse for Trump. Chris Baldridge, the father of Army Cpl. Dillon Baldridge, told The Washington Post that the president called him when he lost his son in June. Trump promised to send him $25,000 and set up an online fundraiser for the family, Baldridge said, but he never followed through.
Presidents have traditionally acted as comforters-in-chief, both to the nation and on an individual level. President Ronald Reagan was particularly known for his speeches to a grieving public, and President Barack Obama delivered a moving eulogy in Charleston after a white supremacist killed black churchgoers there.
At the personal level, President Abraham Lincoln famously wrote a letter to a widow, Mrs. Bixby, expressing his sympathies:
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.
Trump has not had any such moment. When he traveled to Texas to address the Hurricane Harvey response, he spoke at length about what a great job he and his team were doing.
And when he went to Puerto Rico, he told one family of hurricane survivors: “Have a good time.”
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