WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s condolence call to the widow of a slain soldier exploded into an acrid row on Wednesday, with the man’s mother accusing the president of disrespecting her family and Trump complaining that his words had been cynically twisted for political purposes.
The president had told the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of four Americans killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger, that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” and he referred to the soldier only as “your guy,” according to Johnson’s mother and a Democratic congresswoman, who both listened to the call.
Trump angrily disputed that account, insisting that he “had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.” The White House accused the congresswoman, Frederica S. Wilson of Florida, who disclosed his comments, of politicizing a sacred ritual after Trump initially said she “fabricated” it.
The furious back-and-forth turned what is, even at the best of times, one of the most emotionally wrenching contacts between the commander in chief and a citizen into an ugly spectacle. It hijacked the White House’s agenda for the week and recalled Trump’s history of feuding with military families and, in the case of Sen. John McCain, a war hero.
To a great extent, it was a self-inflicted wound that Trump opened Monday when he deflected a question about why he had not spoken publicly about the deaths of the soldiers by falsely accusing his predecessor, President Barack Obama, of not contacting the families of fallen troops.
On Tuesday, Trump dragged his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, into the dispute by bringing to light that Obama had not called Kelly, a former Marine Corps general, when his son 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly was killed in 2010 in action in Afghanistan.
The White House said John Kelly was present for Trump’s call on Tuesday afternoon to Johnson’s wife, Myeshia Johnson, and viewed it as an appropriate expression of condolences.
“He took the time to make a call to express his condolences, to thank the family for this individual’s service,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Wednesday. “I think it, frankly, is a disgrace of the media to try to portray an act of kindness like that and that gesture, and try to make it into something that it isn’t.”
Asked on Wednesday about Wilson’s account of the call between the president and the widow, La David Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, backed the congresswoman’s version. “Yes, he did state that comment,” Jones-Johnson said of Trump, corresponding via Facebook.
Pressed twice by reporters about Wilson’s description, Trump dared her to make the allegations again. But the back-and-forth has angered many, including Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., who said Trump needs to stop disrespecting La David Johnson’s family.
“My position is that the vapid, vacuous vessel that is Donald Trump’s brain produces lie after lie after lie,” Hastings said. “All of us see this and somebody needs to say to him, not just as it pertains to this issue, ‘Stop the damn lies.'”
Wilson said she was in the car with the soldier’s widow on Tuesday when Myeshia Johnson spoke to Trump in a phone call that was put on speakerphone. La David Johnson was a mechanic assigned to an Army Special Forces Unit that was ambushed during an counterterrorism operation in Niger. Three other soldiers were killed and two were injured in the attack.
Wilson said that during the call, the president told Myeshia Johnson “something to the fact that he knew what he was getting into when he signed up,” the congresswoman said in an interview on Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
“But that’s not the worst part,” Wilson said. “She was crying the whole time, and when she hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ That’s the hurting part.”
In a Twitter post early Wednesday, Trump disputed the account. It said:
Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
Trump did not say what proof he had.
Wilson said she stood by her description of the call.
“I don’t know what kind of proof he could be talking about,” Wilson said on CNN’s “New Day.”
She added, “I have proof, too.”
Later on Wednesday morning, Wilson pushed back against the president in a Twitter post.
I still stand by my account of the call b/t @realDonaldTrump and Myeshia Johnson. That is her name, Mr. Trump. Not "the woman" or "the wife"— Rep Frederica Wilson (@RepWilson) October 18, 2017
La David Johnson, 25, was from Miami Gardens, Florida, the Defense Department said. He and Johnson had two children, and Myeshia Johnson is pregnant. The Pentagon has started an investigation into the ambush in Niger.
Trump’s comments were the latest in a series of remarks he made this week drawing attention to grieving families of fallen solders, even as he has said very little about the Niger episode.
On Monday, Trump said he had written letters to the slain soldiers’ families, and compared his actions to past commanders in chief, saying past presidents have not always contacted families of those killed in action. But he singled out Obama — saying his predecessor had not made such calls — and quickly drew angry rebukes and denials from former Obama aides.
In a radio interview on Tuesday, Trump suggested that Obama never called Kelly after his son died.
“You could ask General Kelly — did he get a call from Obama?” Trump said in an interview on Fox News Radio. “I believe his policy was somewhat different than my policy. I can tell you my policy is I’ve called every one of them.”
Trump’s tweet rebutting Wilson’s account of the phone call was his sixth Twitter post on Wednesday morning and came after the congresswoman’s description was discussed on morning news shows. Trump often takes to Twitter with reactions to what he sees on television.