The sordid story of President Donald Trump’s attempt to smear President
Barack Obama as being inattentive to the families of fallen troops took
more turns on Wednesday. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from
Florida, reported that, in what was meant to be a condolence call, Trump
had made Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David T. Johnson, who
was killed on October 4th, in Niger, at the age of twenty-five, break
down in tears. “She said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name,’ ” Wilson
told MSNBC, adding that she had heard much of the call on speakerphone.
Wilson described Trump as “almost like joking. He said, ‘Well, I guess
you knew’—something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting
into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ ” Trump tweeted
that he had “proof” that Wilson’s account was “totally fabricated”—an
extraordinary response. Even if Trump did not, verbatim, use the words
that Wilson remembered, surely learning that he had failed to console
Myeshia Johnson, a grieving young woman who has two small children and
is pregnant with a third, might have humbled him. He might have just
regretted that he didn’t communicate well; he might have wished that he
had done better. But, later in the day, he again said that Wilson had
lied, and insisted that he’d had “a very nice conversation” with
Johnson. Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, pushed that
line, saying that Trump was “completely respectful” and that is was “a
disgrace of the media” to suggest anything else. As it happens, Sergeant
Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, in an interview with the
Washington Post, backed up Wilson, telling the paper, “President Trump
did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.” Will
Trump call her a liar, too?

This chain of Trumpian insults began when the President, in a press
conference on Monday that served primarily to humiliate Mitch McConnell,
was asked why, in the two weeks since Johnson had died in Niger, along
with Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Dustin Wright, and Jeremiah Johnson,
he had not said anything publicly about their loss. Instead of
answering, Trump went on a riff about how he planned to call the
families—he had not done so yet, nor had the letters that he said he’d
written been sent—and how this intention set him apart from, and above,
other Presidents. “If you look at President Obama and other Presidents,
most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls,” Trump
said. “I like to call.” Before the press conference was over, he was
asked to justify this statement, which did not tally with Barack and
Michelle Obama’s reputation for reaching out to bereft military families
with calls, meetings, visits to hospitals, and vigils at Dover Air Force
Base, where the bodies of the dead arrived home. (One of Michelle
Obama’s causes, as First Lady, was Joining Forces, an initiative that
she began with Second Lady Jill Biden, to support military families.)

Sergeant La David T. Johnson was twenty-five years old when he was killed alongside three colleagues.

Photograph by U.S. Army Special Operations Command via AP

Trump, in response, partially qualified his remarks by saying that
he’d “heard” that Obama didn’t call often, vaguely attributing this
word on the street to “my generals.” A number of generals said that
Obama had been nothing but deeply compassionate and attentive—but Trump
thought he had a general whom he could throw into the fray. “You could ask
General Kelly—did he get a call from Obama?” Trump asked Brian
Kilmeade, of Fox News, in a radio interview. In 2010, when John Kelly,
who is now Trump’s chief of staff, was a lieutenant general, his son,
Robert, a Marine lieutenant, was killed in Afghanistan. Unnamed White
House officials quickly let it be known that Kelly did not get a call,
dragging Robert Kelly, who deserves better, into battle once again.

John Kelly, as of Wednesday afternoon, had not addressed the issue
publicly. Sanders, in her press briefing, said that he and Trump had
spoken “multiple times” on Tuesday and that his only anger was at
those—meaning the media—who had “politicized” the situation. She also
said that Kelly had been on the call with the Johnsons, and that he
thought that Trump had been entirely respectful and had done “the best
job he could under the circumstances,” thereby pitting the word of a
father who had lost his son against that of a woman who had lost her
son. It would, eventually, be useful to hear more about this from Kelly
himself.

There are so many layers to a Trump attack that trying to make sense of
one layer can obscure the others. Does it matter, for example, that the
Obamas invited General Kelly and his wife to a White House breakfast for
Gold Star families a couple of months after Robert’s death, seating them
at Michelle’s table? Or that Robert had a wife,
Heather, who would have
been his next of kin and thus might have been contacted, too? Robert
died during an intense period in the war in Afghanistan, when it might,
logistically, have been difficult to have the President immediately call
each family. Should the Kellys have been given special treatment because
the General was a general? Does it matter that Trump, who claimed that
he had called all, or “virtually” all the families of those who have
died during his Presidency, seems, according to the A.P., to have missed
a few? (One father who did receive a call told the Washington
Post
that Trump offered him twenty-five thousand dollars but never followed
through; the White House says that the check has now gone out.)

Maybe none of that matters—not even the comments that Skip and Rhonda
Rollins made to CNN when they encountered the Obamas on Veterans Day, in
2009, during an unannounced trip that the Obamas made to Section 60 of
Arlington National Cemetery, where many of the dead from the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. The Rollinses were there to visit the
grave of their son, Justin, who had died in Iraq in 2007, at the age of
twenty-five, and Skip Rollins said that, even though he didn’t agree
with President Obama politically, he and his wife were moved by the
gesture. Why tally that at all? There is something dirty about a
bragging contest built around comparative compassion; it is unseemly and
un-Presidential. But the truth matters, and, with Trump, one needs to be
alert to both the fine print and the big lie.

One needs, also, to return to the evaded questions. Does the Trump
Administration have a coherent account of what happened in Niger, and an
explanation of what might happen with the deployment of troops there?
Does Trump understand how many people may die in the wars he casually
talks about starting? Would he make all the phone calls then? More than
that, does he accept that the deaths, for the troops’ families, have
meanings that have nothing to do with him?

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