Squaring up to a hero's widow will be Trump's most damaging war yet
PUBLISHED: 13:00 28 October 2017
PAUL CONNEW on the US president's latest imbroglio
It was an under siege US president who presided over the scandal which gave the world the over-used suffix, ‘gate’.
Now, another under siege one is responsible for its latest, and perhaps most inelegant to date, application... ‘condolencegate’. And Donald Trump’s latest imbroglio might well prove the biggest self-inflicted wound on his presidency so far.
The president is not afraid of making enemies but the escalating dispute over what he did or did not say to the widow of Army Sgt La David Johnson has ignited a war with a very dangerous foe indeed: America’s war veterans.
It is a war that began with a skirmish that should only have commanded maybe 24 or 48 hours on the news cycle, but has turned into a full-scale battle-cum-crisis showing little sign of reaching a truce anytime soon.
When the story first broke I put it down to just another display of one character flaw most of us who have spent any time with Trump in the past have long been aware of: he suffers from an acute empathy bypass.
With that knowledge in mind, the president’s call to Myeshia Johnson reeked not of any intent to insult, but of Trump’s inability to empathise, to conjure up the words to render a pregnant service hero’s widow’s unbearable pain just that tiny bit more bearable. His apparent stumble over remembering her slain husband’s name just another testament to his notorious impotence and incompetence in grasping basic detail.
But, oh no, Donald Trump, this most narcissistic of presidents, isn’t a man to beat a diplomatic retreat, let alone issue a dignified apology that would have defused the story. So he went to war with a bereaved woman, and those supporting her account of that ‘condolence’ call, and branded them ‘liars’.
Not for the first time when under pressure, he claimed to have ‘proof’ his version of that call was ‘the truth’, implying that there was a tape in existence. Not for the first time, the White House was then forced to concede no such record existed.
Florida Democrat Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who was in the car with Myeshia Johnson when she received the presidential call and put it on loudspeaker, was the first to go public about Trump allegedly saying ‘he knew what he was signing up for… but when it happens it hurts’.
The president then accused the congresswoman of ‘totally fabricating’ her version of events and claimed she was saying it for political reasons. And he stuck to his guns even when the dead soldier’s mother, who was also in the car with her bereaved daughter-in-law, confirmed the congresswoman’s account.
Even after the widow herself went on national television to tearfully back up the story of the president’s insensitivity and confirm that he didn’t even appear to know her husband’s name, Trump remained in petulant denial – although his maladroit fightback was hardly helped by a tweet in which he clumsily mentioned ‘the widow’ and ‘the wife’, rather than referring to Myeshia Johnson by name.
In characteristic Trumpian style, his defence constituted of attack. He blurted out a claim that previous presidents like Barack Obama and George W Bush didn’t make condolence calls and sought (not for the first time) to big himself up as a more admirable and respected figure than his predecessors.
It didn’t take the media long to establish that was a lie and to prove that both Obama and Bush’s records in offering condolences and frequently attending funerals and saluting the coffins of returning US military dead far surpassed that of Trump.
It also emerged that Obama and Bush had frequently personally liaised with the families of military casualties privately, sometimes spending hours with them, and without any White House PR projection.
The media also dug up the fact that Trump had promised the impoverished father of another fallen soldier he had called weeks ago a personal cheque for $25,000, but had then failed to send it. When that story broke, clearly wrong-footed White House officials delivered an immediate and humiliating POTUS twist on the old ‘the cheque’s in the post’ line.
There was a slight retreat when Trump then admitted: “I don’t know what Bush did. I don’t know what Obama did… I believe his policy was somewhat different than my policy. I can tell you, my policy is I have called every one of them.” Er, except that Trump at that stage hadn’t written letters of condolence or called the other soldiers killed in the ISIS ambush in Niger in which Sgt La David Johnson died on October 4 – an incident for which the White House is now under fire for not disclosing at the time.
Within hours of that false claim, the White House was frantically explaining that condolence letters from the president had finally been dispatched, a fortnight after their deaths.
But while Obama and Bush maintained a dignified silence on the slurs, others have been quick to unleash a powerful barrage of criticism on Trump’s crass mishandling of the entire situation, much of it from a particularly significant constituency – former military personnel.
Retired Lt General Mark Hertling said Trump’s conduct was “not a good luck for a commander-in-chief… I would put it in the shameful category”.
He was far from alone. Across traditional and social media, critical missiles rained down on a defiant but clearly rattled POTUS. In last year’s election, around 54% of veterans voted for Trump, whose campaign saw him laud the military and promise to boost support for injured ex-servicemen.
In truth, his policies – including his continuing attempts to destroy Obamacare – are doing the reverse. The next opinion polls are likely to show a sharp slump in veterans’ support for Trump’s presidency.
It was a telltale sign of Trump’s embattled state when he dragged his chief of staff, General John Kelly – who lost his son in Iraq – into the political firestorm.
The president’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told correspondents that Kelly was ‘disgusted and frustrated’ by the way his son’s death ‘has become politicised’. The big flaw in that line of defence came with the fact that it was POTUS himself who had originally brought Kelly’s son into the debate by telling a radio interviewer: “You could ask Gen Kelly, did he get a call from Obama when his son was killed?”
An uncomfortable Kelly, who has largely declined to do media interviews about his own loss, confirmed that Obama hadn’t called, while at pains to flag up that presidents didn’t always make phone calls but always wrote letters to bereaved parents, implying that Obama had indeed written to him.
There was also the little matter that at a May 2011 White House breakfast for gold star families who had lost loved ones in America’s service, General Kelly and his wife had been seated at Michelle Obama’s table.
A day later, however, Trump went further and General Kelly, looking less than comfortable again, was rolled out in the president’s defence in the White House media briefing room. He delivered a raw, moving monologue about the ‘pain of sacrifice’ and defended Trump’s phone call to Myeshia Johnson without actually denying her account of what the president had said. But the four-star ex-Marine general also reiterated a Trump claim that Congresswoman Wilson had falsely taken the credit for the funding of a new FBI building in Florida, only for archive footage to destroy the accusation.
Privately, those close to Kelly confirm he was ‘pressured’ into stepping into the dogfight by the president and feels ‘embarrassed’ by the whole episode.
But none of this could deter a self-obsessed POTUS, who variously argued it was ‘unpatriotic’ to even question a four-star general’s word and continued his character assassination of Wilson, who he has branded ‘wacky’, an ‘empty barrel’ and ‘the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican party’. Now, backed by Democrat colleagues and some Republicans, the congresswoman is demanding an official apology from Trump.
The ongoing row has, of course, thrust Trump’s own ‘draft dodging’ history back into sharp focus, with attention returning to the issue of how he five times avoided military call-up during the Vietnam War – four times because of university studies and once because of ‘bone spurs’ in his foot. (Not that the condition ever interfered with Trump’s golf swing. And there is also the curious fact that he has been unable to name the doctor who diagnosed the condition or remember which foot was affected).
The growing disconnect between Trump and the military was further highlighted when he was caught on camera cracking jokes during a solemn military ceremony. It happened when the president was being interviewed at an Air National Guard base by one of his favourite journalists, Fox News’s ultra-conservative presenter Sean Hannity. Suddenly the solemn Retreat bugle call began playing.
Traditionally, those present are expected to stop what they are doing to salute and honour the call. Instead, Trump turned to Hannity and quipped: “Are they playing that for you or me?” before adding, “They’re playing that in honour of Hannity’s ratings. He’s beating everybody.”
The social media reaction from military veterans was swift and damning. Sample: “That Trump did not know, recognise or salute the ‘Retreat’ call — a moment every service member/family worldwide stop and salute — is disgraceful,” tweeted US Navy veteran Malcolm Nance. Former Vietnam vet, Ray Smith posted: “After all the bullshit about NFL players ‘disrespecting the flag and our military, Trump disrespects both by joking during the playing of Retreat at an Army base.”
Military veterans, though, have not been the only recent critics of Trump. The extraordinary spectacle of a president fighting back in a spat with a war widow has also been the occasion of another new departure in US politics, with Barack Obama and George W Bush deciding to break the unwritten code that former presidents don’t publicly attack a serving POTUS.
Although neither actually named Trump or got involved in the specifics of the latest row, there was no doubt who they were targeting. Bush told a New York audience that “populist nationalism” has led to US politics “falling prey to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication”, while Obama lashed out at the “sluggish condemnation of white supremacists” and lamented the “same old politics of division”.
He went on to warn: “Some of the politics we see now, we thought we had put to bed. That’s folks looking 50 years back. It’s the 21st century not the 19th century. We’ve got folks who are deliberately trying to make folks angry – to demonise people who have different ideas, to get their base all riled up because it provides a short term tactical advantage.”
Messaging like that is almost as subtle as Trump’s own dog whistle rhetoric.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and former national newspaper editor who met and interviewed Donald Trump several times when he was the Mirror Group’s US Bureau Chief