And so we enter week two of the “condolence call” news cycle. Frederica Wilson made two claims about Trump’s phone conversation with Myeshia Johnson, Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow. One: She said Mrs. Johnson took offense at Trump saying something to the effect of “he knew what he signed up for … but when it happens, it hurts anyway,” which sounds to me like an awkward attempt at praise but may not have been understood that way. Two: What bothered Mrs. Johnson above all else, allegedly, was Trump not using her husband’s name during the call. That was seen as a snub, evidence that he couldn’t be bothered to take 15 seconds to make sure he had a fallen soldier’s name right before picking up the phone.
Myeshia Johnson appeared on “Good Morning America” today and was asked about both of those points. Correct on both counts, she said. Wilson didn’t “fabricate” anything, as Trump insisted last week. In fact, claims Johnson, Trump admitted during the call that he couldn’t remember her husband’s name.
I wonder if this interview would have happened if Trump hadn’t deflected at last Monday’s press conference when asked if he’d phoned the families of the soldiers killed in Niger. Probably it would have: Wilson had a partisan reason to publicize the family’s anger with Trump and the media had a partisan reason to amplify it. Once John Kelly tried to tamp down the controversy by bringing his own moral authority to bear, it was a cinch that the only person with more moral authority than him in this situation, Johnson’s grieving wife, would be asked to refute Trump and Kelly publicly. And now she has.
Yes the President, said that he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway. And it made me cry cause I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name. The only way he remembered my husband’s name is because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him and that’s when he actually said La David. I heard him stumblin’ on trying to remember my husband’s name and that’s what hurt me the most, because 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. And that’s what made me upset and cry even more because my husband was an awesome soldier. He did what it take other people like five years to do in three years. So imagine if my husband was here now. It took my husband three years to make E-5 — it takes other soldiers five to six years just to make E-5. So if he was here now he woulda been on his way to bein’ the E-6 or E-7. My husband had high hopes in the military career.
What do you do in this situation if you’re a president whose brand is built on never backing down when challenged, even when that means arguing publicly with a woman who buried her young husband less than 48 hours ago? You double down and call her a liar:
I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2017
Will Kelly be back at the White House podium today to call her a liar too? Gotta keep this corrosive news story churning somehow. Meanwhile, the media’s begun to pay closer attention to White House protocol in dealing with Gold Star families generally. One story that broke last week and quickly got swallowed up by the Trump/Wilson/Kelly back and forth was POTUS offering a Gold Star dad $25,000 months ago and then not sending the check until last week, when reporters began asking about it. A new story from the Atlantic claims that the White House has been remiss in contacting some Gold Star families at all and is now rushing out letters of condolence before the media finds those families and puts them on record as having received no contact about their fallen relatives:
Timothy Eckels Sr. hadn’t heard anything from President Trump since his son Timothy Eckels Jr. was killed after a collision involving the USS John S. McCain on August 21. But then, on October 20, two days into the controversy over the president’s handling of a condolence call with an American soldier’s widow, Eckels Sr. received a United Parcel Service package dated October 18 with a letter from the White House.
“Honestly, I feel the letter is reactionary to the media storm brewing over how these things have been handled,” Eckels told The Atlantic. “I’ve received letters from McCain, Mattis, and countless other officials before his. I wasn’t sure if the fact that the accident that caused Timothy’s death has still yet to officially have the cause determined played into the timing of our president’s response.”…
In the past week, The Atlantic made contact with 12 families who had been identified as having lost kin serving in the military since January. Along with those contacted by other news outlets like The Washington Post and the Associated Press, about 25 of the 46 families have been reached. Of those 25, a plurality—11 families—said they had received neither a call nor a letter from the president. Nine confirmed that they had received personal calls from the president. Members of four families said they had received a letter, but no call. And members of the remaining family were contacted by the White House, but declined to meet with the president.
Trump was compassionate and complimentary during his call with Sgt. Mark de Alencar’s widow, Natasha, although he refrained from using de Alencar’s name during that call. Maybe he’s just not good with names? He’s been known to forget, er, Tiffany when thanking his children publicly.
Exit question: There’ll be a new White House policy authorizing Mattis to handle all condolence calls by the end of the week, right?