Soldier’s Widow Says Trump Struggled to Remember Sgt. La David Johnson’s Name – New York Times
WASHINGTON — The widow of one of four soldiers killed in Niger went on television on Monday to criticize President Trump for how he spoke to her during a condolence call last week, drawing a swift denial from Mr. Trump, who breathed new life into a bitter controversy that has transformed a tragedy into a political feud.
Myeshia Johnson, whose husband, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, was killed early this month in an attack that is under investigation by the United States military, said the president had blundered through the condolence call he made to her last week, only deepening her grief because he did not seem to know her husband’s name.
“The president said, ‘He knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway,’” Ms. Johnson said during an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “It made me cry because I was angry at the tone in his voice and how he said it.”
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She said Mr. Trump’s memory seemed to falter during their exchange.
“He couldn’t remember my husband’s name,” Ms. Johnson said. “The only way he remembered my husband’s name is because he had my husband’s report in front of him and that’s when he actually said ‘La David.’ 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?”
Mr. Trump last week denied saying that Sergeant Johnson had known what he signed up for, but John F. Kelly, the president’s chief of staff — and who is himself the father of a Marine killed in action — told reporters that Mr. Trump had said those words. Mr. Kelly said that this message had provided solace to him when he received the news of his son’s death.
On Monday, even as White House officials conceded privately that they had to find a way to move beyond the episode, Mr. Trump refused to back down, posting a message on Twitter that contradicted Ms. Johnson’s account after her interview was broadcast.
The president’s response seemed certain to keep alive the extraordinary squabble, which erupted a week ago when Mr. Trump was asked about the deadly ambush in Niger and asserted wrongly that previous presidents had not called the families of American troops killed in action. He then proceeded to call relatives of the soldiers killed in Niger, only to have Representative Frederica S. Wilson, a Florida Democrat who listened to Mr. Trump’s conversation with Ms. Johnson, criticize the president publicly for his words.
On Monday, Ms. Johnson supported Ms. Wilson, who has been feuding with both Mr. Trump and Mr. Kelly over the call.
“Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not fabricated,” Ms. Johnson said. “What she said was 100 percent correct.”
Ms. Johnson said that on the call, she let Mr. Trump do most of the talking as her anger grew. When asked if she wanted to say anything to Mr. Trump, the young widow decided against delivering a message.
She did, however, say that she was desperate to know more details about the disappearance and death of her husband, and described him as “caring” and a “great soldier.” The couple had known each other since she was 6 years old.
“I want to know why it took them 48 hours to find my husband,” Ms. Johnson said.
She also shared a deep concern over not being allowed to view her husband’s remains.
“They won’t show me a finger, a hand,” she said. “I know my husband’s body from head to toe and they won’t let me see anything,” she said. “I need to see my husband.”
After a service member is killed on the battlefield, the military’s mortuary affairs personnel often do everything they can to prepare the deceased for a potential viewing. In some case, however, if the wounds are too grievous or the body is extremely disfigured, the military might suggest that the coffin remain sealed.
The back and forth began after Sergeant Johnson and three Americans were killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger. The president called Ms. Johnson and said that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” and referred to the soldier as “your guy.” Ms. Wilson, a longtime family friend who accompanied Ms. Johnson and heard the call, recounted what the president said to several reporters and lamented that the president had offended the young widow, who was upset that the president did not seem to know Sergeant Johnson’s name.
Mr. Trump angrily disputed that account, saying that he “had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.”
Last week, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that Ms. Wilson’s account was “totally fabricated,” although the woman who raised Sergeant Johnson said it was accurate. And Mr. Trump has continued to target the congresswoman, calling her “wacky.”
In a White House briefing, Mr. Kelly harshly criticized Ms. Wilson, who had known Sergeant Johnson’s family since he was in elementary school, for listening to the call. Mr. Kelly called the lawmaker an “empty barrel” and also misrepresented her remarks when he accused her of bragging about securing $20 million for an F.B.I. building in South Florida and twisting President Barack Obama’s arm.
Video of Ms. Wilson’s speech, released by The Sun Sentinel, a newspaper in South Florida, showed that during her nine-minute speech, Ms. Wilson never took credit for getting the money for the building, only for helping pass legislation to name the building after two fallen federal agents. She also never mentioned pleading with Mr. Obama, and she acknowledged the help of several Republicans, including John A. Boehner, then the House speaker; Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo; and Senator Marco Rubio.
On Monday, Ms. Johnson also pushed back against Mr. Kelly’s criticism of Ms. Wilson for hearing the call. The widow said she had asked the military official accompanying her family to put the call from President Trump on speakerphone so others could also hear his words.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said that Mr. Kelly “absolutely” stands by his Thursday remarks.
“General Kelly said he was ‘stunned’ that Representative Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain F.B.I. agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation,” Ms. Sanders said in a statement. “As General Kelly pointed out, if you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”
Over the weekend, the dispute continued with Mr. Trump posting Sunday on Twitter, “Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party, a disaster for Dems. You watch her in action & vote R!”
Several women from the Congressional Black Caucus also wrote a letter demanding an apology from Mr. Kelly.
“We were appalled by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s statements where he called Congresswoman Wilson an ‘empty barrel’ and accused her of taking credit for securing funding for a new F.B.I. Building,” the lawmakers said.
“General Kelly’s comments are reprehensible,” the letter stated. “Congresswoman Wilson’s integrity and credibility should not be challenged or undermined by such blatant lies. We, the women of the Congressional Black Caucus, proudly stand with Congresswoman Wilson and demand that General Kelly apologize to her without delay and take responsibility for his reckless and false statements.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.
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