How Trump Turned a Phone Call With a Vet’s Widow Into a Media Circus

After Donald Trump called the widow of a soldier who died during a Niger ambush, it blew up in his face. The phone call quickly turned into a media circus, after he got around to doing it. That fact reveals a lot about the president’s personality. His lies surrounding something so simple also points to a sinister side. We looked into why the phone call turned so political, so fast.

1. He started the saga with an obvious lie

trump in a dark suit on a tan chair with his hands up

Donald Trump started the fiasco with a clear lie. | Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images

“If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” said the president at a news conference in the White House Rose Garden. “A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate.”

Obama’s aides swiftly responded, calling the statement false. Trump’s remark during the news conference sets up an ongoing comparison between himself and Obama. That speaks to the broader notion held by part of his base that his predecessor held less patriotic beliefs.

Defense Secretary James Mattis told associates that Obama did too little to honor the sacrifice of Gold Star families who have lost a family member in combat. It remains unclear whether Mattis relayed his sentiments to the president. Why Trump perpetuates that idea points to his idol. 

2. Trump follows traditional Jacksonian ideals

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Andrew Jackson standing on a coach waving to supporters. | Three Lions/Getty Images

The historian Walter Russell Mead traced the impulse to the legacy of President Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s legacy, Mead wrote in Foreign Affairs, centers around identity, culture, and patriotism.

“Many Jacksonians came to believe that the American establishment was no longer reliably patriotic, with ‘patriotism’ defined as an instinctive loyalty to the well-being and values of Jacksonian America,” he explained.” Many Americans with cosmopolitan sympathies see their main ethical imperative as working for the betterment of humanity in general.” A portrait of Jackson hangs in the Oval Office. Many Trump supporters believe the same, which is why the president plays so well to that crowd.

A total of 55% of voters told Quinnipac pollsters in August that he is performing as expected. That includes 63% of non-college educated white voters who constitute the core of the president’s base. There’s a reason Trump keeps pivoting from actual issues to straw men, like Obama and the NFL. 

3. The president distracts from real issues with fabricated arguments

donald trump's head in front of a flag

Trump would rather start fights than set policy. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The president consistently returns to “cultural competence, not … policy competence,” said Amy Walter, senior editor of the Cook Political Report. “I think what he does more than anyone is keeps coming back to the cultural issues as a way to keep reminding voters why they supported him in the first place.”

Those “‘issues’ are a series of episodes where he has a fight with some person who doesn’t want America to be great, like the NFL or Colin Kaepernick, and he wins,” said Bill Kristol, editor at large for The Weekly Standard.

As Slate pointed out, this latest spat reveals something telling about Trump. “If his fight with the NFL underscored his willingness to use racial grievance to rally his supporters, then his comments to the widow of a fallen soldier show precisely who Trump will not respect, under almost any circumstances,” the author wrote. Who won’t he respect? The answer probably surprises no one. 

4. Why Trump’s call with Johnson blew up

Federicka Wilson in a blue suit and a cowboy hat

Rep. Frederica Wilson heard the whole thing, and got called a liar. | Joe Skipper/Getty Images

Once Trump did call Myeshia Johnson, widow of slain soldier Sgt. La David T. Johnson, it went poorly. Representative Frederica Wilson heard the call, and said Trump told the widow her husband “knew what he was signing up for.” Trump took to Twitter denying the claim, calling Wilson a liar.

The next day, Sarah Huckabee Sanders called the media a “disgrace.” She described Wilson as “disgusting” for raising an issue with the president’s tone. Calling the widow, she said, was an “act of kindness,” Vanity Fair reported.

Slate pointed out a pattern in who draws Trump’s ire. This week, two African American women — a congresswoman and a grieving widow — took the hit. Last month, he called for Jemele Hill, a black sports commentator, to be fired after she called the president a “white supremacist.” Earlier this year, former national security adviser Susan Rice, became accused of illegally “unmasking” Trump associates during the election. Before that, he went after journalist April Ryan and Representative Maxine Waters.

While black women draw the strongest fire, Trump has gone after military families in the past, too. 

5. Johnson joins other military families Trump insulted

john mccain behind a wood railing

Sen. John McCain fell under Trump’s wrath, as well as many others. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The president incited a wave of criticism during the 2016 election when he attacked the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, who died in the line of duty. Days after taking office, when an operation he green-lighted in Yemen went awry, Trump blamed Obama.

“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” he said during an interview with Fox & Friends, shortly after the botched raid. As Vox noted, Trump mocked John McCain’s military service, saying he prefers war heroes who weren’t captured. During a campaign interview with Matt Lauer, he threatened mass firings of generals if they didn’t go along with his policies.

He also compared an Afghanistan policy review to a restaurant renovation, and proposed a tenfold increase in the US military arsenal. That suggestion, NBC News said caused officials to become “rattled by the president’s desire for more nuclear weapons and his understanding of other national security issues from the Korean Peninsula to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Trump stayed the course, but one aspect of the issue departed from past snafus. 

6. His staff jumped aboard the insult train

Sarah Huckabee in pink at the white house press pool

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee addresses the White House press pool. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Chief of Staff John Kelly defended Trump’s language on the call, CNBC reported. The official told the president what they told him, after his son passed away in Afghanistan. “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” Kelly’s best friend, Gen. Joe Dunford, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told him. “[My son] knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were, because we were at war. When he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth.”

Kelly added, “That’s what the president tried to say to the four families.”

Instead of acknowledging how poorly that went over with Johnson, Kelly jumped on Wilson. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would’ve listened in on that conversation,” Kelly told reporters. “I thought at least that was sacred.” That’s par for the Trump administration course. 

7. His criticism sounds familiar

John Kelly talks to the white house press pool in a dark suit

John Kelly addresses the press pool about Wilson. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

A Vogue article noted that Trump has responded this way to women before. To Trump, Wilson appears not as an elected official supporting a constituent and friend, but a “wacky” woman. He called Clinton and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz “nasty.” The president accused Mika Brzezinski of having a “low IQ.” He said Megyn Kelly has “blood coming out of her wherever,” and Jessica Leeds, who accused Trump of assault, “would not be [his] first choice.”

Wilson and Johnson drew Trump’s latest ire, and Kelly jumped right on board, NBC reported. Kelly recalled attending a ceremony in 2015 dedicating a new FBI field office in Miami to two fallen agents, and referred to a congresswoman who spoke at the event.

“A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise … talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders echoed his comments. “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.”

Wilson called his comments racist, but a CNN commentator found no evidence of that. Regardless, the entire issue makes one thing clear.

8. The ordeal distracted from the real issue

john mattis in a dark suit with his back to the camera

Former Defense Secretary John Mattis had criticized Obama, but he did better than this. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Calling Wilson “wacky” and “an empty barrel” gets the media’s attention. It diverts that attention away from Trump’s actual actions as president. That might serve as the most dangerous aspect of the veteran phone call circus.

As Vox pointed out, Trump also promised $25,000 to a Gold Star father that never arrived. An official condolence letter drafted by National Security Council staff never went out. He also chose not to address the initial incident. It all began two weeks ago with the death of three American soldiers on what the U.S. government described as a “routine” patrol in Niger. Trump did not address the situation in the immediate aftermath of the news. Instead, he started a feud to distract from what could look like a failure to keep Americans safe.

“The worst tribute we could pay to Sgts. Black, Johnson, Johnson, and Wright would be to ignore the cause they fought for,” Vox wrote, “without any hard questions for their commander in chief about how or why they died, and what we purchased in national security with their lives.”

Trump’s ability to turn their sacrifice into a personal media event speaks to how he might react in a crisis. That should scare Americans, whether they agree with his handling of it or not.

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