Over the last few weeks, Donald Trump has managed to turn the tragic story of the death of four American soldiers into an ugly political circus.
In 12 days, Trump exhibited his full range of mental and emotional dysfunction, including dishonesty, addiction to flattery, self-praise, insensitivity, tone-deafness, and the need to belittle others.
The timeline of the Niger tragedy requires little embellishment to make the point.
On the evening of October 4, news began to circulate that U.S. soldiers operating in the African nation of Niger had come under attack from hostile forces. Trump was briefed on the attack that same evening by Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly.
The next day, the U.S. Africa Command confirmed that three U.S. service members were killed in Niger. Another U.S. soldier, who was later identified as Sgt. La David Johnson, remained unaccounted for. That afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders acknowledged “the fallen service members who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
That evening, Trump used a photo op with military leaders to tease the nation with the ominous suggestion that the photo might represent “the calm before the storm.” He made no mention of the soldiers who had died in Niger.
The next day, October 6, the Pentagon disclosed the names of the three soldiers killed in Niger, and it was widely reported that the body of the fourth soldier, Sgt. Johnson, had also been recovered. That afternoon, when Sanders was asked why Trump had made no statement about the soldiers, she said that the statement she had made the previous day was “on behalf of the administration.” Trump remained silent.
For the next 10 days, Trump continued to have nothing to say about the Niger tragedy to the American people or the families of the fallen soldiers. Not a single word.
During that same period, Trump played at least three rounds of golf, complained that Republicans weren’t getting equal time on television, belittled Senator Bob Corker, tweeted five times about the National Football League, publicly belittled a female African-American ESPN commentator, and whined incessantly about “fake news” in more than a dozen tweets.
No wonder he didn’t have a spare moment to honor the four fallen American soldiers!
It was only on October 16, twelve days after the killings were reported to him, that Trump uttered his first public words about the deaths in Niger. When asked about the Niger incident at a press availability with Mitch McConnell, Trump allowed as how he felt “very, very badly about that.”
During that same press availability, Trump claimed falsely that he had written personal letters to the families of the fallen soldiers. When it was revealed that no such letters had been sent or received, he claimed that he had only literally “written” them, not sent them. Remember, it’s the thought that counts.
He also gratuitously and falsely trashed past presidents, including Barack Obama, claiming that “most of them didn’t make calls.” By contrast, he pointed out that “I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.”
On the next day, October 17, Trump admitted (sort of) that he had lied about Obama, stating “I don’t know what Obama’s policy was.” Nobody bothered to ask him why, if he didn’t know what Obama’s policy was, he had claimed on the previous day that Obama’s policy was not to make calls.
But it wasn’t Trump’s lying that turned out to be the headline of his statements on October 17.
Sadly, it’s no longer news when our president lies because it happens so often.
Rather, the headline was Trump’s casual and gratuitous thrusting of the personal tragedy of his Chief of Staff, Gen. Kelly, into the public spotlight. Kelly is a Gold Star father whose son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed by a landmine in Afghanistan in 2010. Gen. Kelly had maintained years of dignified silence about his son’s death.
And Kelly had largely succeeded in keeping his grief over his son’s death private. Until October 17, that is, when Trump breezily dragged the Kellys, father and son, into his political show. “As far as other presidents,” Trump said, “I don’t know. You could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”
October 17 turned out to be a busy day for Trump. In addition to lying about other presidents and using his Chief of Staff’s personal tragedy to puff himself up, Trump had finally been shamed into calling the families of the four fallen soldiers.
That didn’t go well, either. According to Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, a close friend of the family who heard the call over a speakerphone, Trump told the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, the only African American among the four lost soldiers, that Johnson “knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”
Good guess, Mr. President!
The next morning, Trump compounded his callous statement with yet another lie. Trump tweeted that Wilson’s account of the call was “totally fabricated.” But Wilson’s account was promptly confirmed by another woman who had overheard the call, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, Sgt. Johnson’s surrogate mother. Jones-Johnson described Wilson’s account as “very accurate.”
And now, Sgt. Johnson’s widow herself, Myeshia Johnson, has gone public with a statement that Wilson’s account was “100-percent correct.” Trump couldn’t remember her husband’s name, and told her that her husband “knew what he signed up for“ in a tone of voice that hurt her and made her angry.
The definitive confirmation of Wilson’s account of the phone call came from an unexpected source, Gen. Kelly. Having had his son’s death dragged into the political arena by Trump, Kelly felt compelled to speak out. He did so in a heartfelt statement to the White House press corps on October 19. While Kelly’s lengthy statement has been subjected to criticism, most of it fair, nobody can doubt his sincerity or the depth of his loss.
Perhaps the most touching, and certainly the most relevant portion of Kelly’s statement was his account of what he was told when his son was killed in Afghanistan. Kelly’s “casualty officer” at the time was General Joseph Dunford, who today is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation’s highest ranking military officer. Dunford also happened to be Gen. Kelly’s best friend.
Here’s Kelly’s verbatim account of what Dunford said to him:
“He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends. That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day.”
How this moving, human account of a fellow warrior comforting his best friend turned into Trump telling a grieving widow that her son “knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt” speaks volumes about the person that is Donald Trump.
Trump used some of Kelly’s words in his conversation with Sgt. Johnson’s widow, but none of the meaning, context or nuance.
The Dunford/Kelly conversation was warrior-to-warrior, two old friends who had walked through hell together, and knew the sacred bond shared by the 1 percent who risk their lives on the battlefield. It was a deeply empathetic, even lyrical statement about war, fulfilling one’s destiny, and making the ultimate sacrifice surrounded by fellow soldiers, the “best men on Earth.”
Trump’s statement to Johnson’s widow was none of that. Lacking empathy, sensitivity, or even common decency, Trump tried to fake his way through the call by parroting some of the words, but none of the meaning, that he had heard from General Kelly.
His cluelessness is such that he undoubtedly feels aggrieved that he has been criticized for saying to Johnson’s widow exactly (in Trump’s mind) what General Dunford had said to General Kelly almost a decade earlier.
His lack of mental acuity is such that he almost certainly doesn’t comprehend that his words were not only different from what Gen. Dunford had said to Gen. Kelly, but carried an entirely different meaning.
And he lacks the empathy and simple human decency to see the Niger tragedy as anything other than another political fight he must “win.”
Sad, on so many different levels.
Follow Philip on Twitter at @PhilipRotner. Philip is an engaged citizen and a columnist who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.