In another stunningly insensitive move, President Donald Trump feuded publicly with Democratic congresswoman Fredericka Wilson this week. This comes as the latest in Trump’s ongoing campaign to turn even the most sacred presidential duties into publicity stunts. His latest faux pas added to the pile of situations the president can’t own as his own mistakes. In turn, that demonstrates a serious disconnect, as his relations with everyone from military families to John McCain and Barack Obama, illustrate.
Trump insults fallen serviceman’s widow
Wilson said she heard Trump tell the widow of a U.S. serviceman killed in an ambush in Niger that “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”
Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Washington Post she heard the call from the White House to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson. Johnson’s mother also stood by Wilson’s account.
“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Jones-Johnson said.
Wilson said Trump “was almost like joking. He said, ‘Well, I guess you knew’ — something to the effect that ‘he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway.’ You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens, anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That’s the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive … absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”
CNN reported that Sgt. La David Johnson died by enemy fire in an October 4 ambush.
“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,” Wilson told MSNBC. “He made her cry.”
Trump, characteristically, denied those claims both in person and on Twitter.
A very insensitive he-said, she-said
“I didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all,” Trump told reporters. “She knows it. And she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said. I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who was — sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren’t too surprised to hear that.”
Minutes later, Wilson responded on Twitter to Trump’s remarks. She stood by her account and told local station WPLG that “Mr. Trump is crazy.” Hours earlier, she told CNN that the president has a “brain disorder.”
Wilson told CNN affiliate WPLG, “That is something that you can say in a conversation, but you shouldn’t say that to a grieving widow. Everyone knows when you go to war you could possibly not come back alive, but you don’t remind a grieving widow of that. That is so insensitive. So insensitive.”
The White House neither confirmed nor denied Wilson’s claims. “The president’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private,” a White House official said in a statement.
Trump tweeted that he has proof of his side of the story, but has not come forward with any. Earlier this week, he actually congratulated himself on the phone calls.
The president pats himself on the back, again
With his usual modesty, Trump turned his response to soldiers killed in an ambush into a publicity stunt. He bragged about calling deceased soldiers’ loved ones, according to CNN.
“I really speak for myself. I am not speaking for other people. I don’t know what [George W.] Bush did. I don’t know what Obama did,” he said. “I believe his policy was somewhat different than my policy. I can tell you, my policy is I have called every one of them.”
Even after it took him days to respond to the Niger ambush, Trump found a way to use it against his predecessors. The New York Times reported that he said past presidents have not always contacted families of those killed in action. Trump suggested Obama never called John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general and now the White House chief of staff, when his son died in Afghanistan in 2010.
“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 called every one of them.”
That comment sparked swift backlash from Obama aides.
Obama invited the Kelly’s to his home
About six months after Kelly’s son died in Afghanistan, Obama hosted him at a breakfast at the White House. Kelly attended the breakfast — held in May 2011 — for the relatives of U.S. troops killed in action, according to the Associated Press. The Hill relayed that Kelly and his wife sat at the table of former first lady Michelle Obama during the breakfast for Gold Star families.
When questioned, Trump said he was “told” Obama didn’t call families often. Former Obama deputy chief of staff Alyssa Mastromonaco sent an angry tweet about the issue, the LA Times reported. “He’s a deranged animal,” she said of Trump.
Former White House photographer Pete Souza posted on his Instagram account a photo of Obama meeting with parents of a fallen sergeant. He recounted meetings with “hundreds of wounded soldiers and those killed in action.”
Given Trump’s military track record, his response in this case hardly comes as a surprise.
John McCain enters the fray
McCain used his acceptance speech for the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal to make a statement, Politico reported. He denounced “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” That McCain said, “is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
Trump once said McCain was “not a hero” even though he had been tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. As the president put it, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
“People have to be careful because at some point I fight back,” Trump responded. “I’m being very nice. I’m being very, very nice. But at some point, I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.”
McCain’s response came as a figurative shrug. “I’ve faced far greater challenges than this,” he told reporters at the Capitol.
“I’d be glad to converse with him,” he said in a CBS interview. “But I also understand that we’re very different people. Different upbringing. Different life experiences. He is in the business of making money, and he has been successful… I was raised in a military family. I was raised in the concept and belief that duty, honor, country is the lodestar for the behavior that we have to exhibit every single day.”
McCain also noted his excellent relationship with Obama’s White House, something he cannot replicate with Trump’s. That may have something to do with Trump’s consistent antagonizing of, well, everyone.
Trump blames Obama for basically everything
McCain and Obama may have gotten along well, but the two men fall at odds almost constantly. According to Politico, Trump even blamed his own shoddy vetting on the former president. Multiple high-level officials opposed Michael Flynn’s appointment to a high-level post. Obama even warned him about Flynn’s erratic ways. After Trump hired him anyway, Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his meetings with a Russian ambassador.
When asked about why Flynn got clearance anyway, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer blamed Obama’s administration. “That was something adjudicated by the Obama administration in April of 2016. They took no steps to suspend that, so that’s not really a question for us. It’s a question for them at that time,” he said.
“Using Obama as a focal point probably works because he’s so polarizing with Republicans,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “He’s just reminding them how much they disliked Obama and that he’s better than the other guy.”
Trump uses that tactic just about every time something goes wrong. Remember the alleged wiretapping?
Did Obama tap actually Trump’s phone?
Zelizer noted that Trump’s antagonism contrasts starkly with previous presidents’. Many distance themselves from their predecessors, in order to continue garnering favor. “These are wilder, continual attacks,” he said. “The difference is in scale and scope.”
Trump famously blamed Obama for tapping his phones during the “very sacred election process.” He tweeted the accusation in March, calling him a “bad (or sick) guy!”
TIME reported that the Department of Justice found no evidence Obama ever wiretapped Trump Tower. “Both FBI and NSD [Department of Justice’s National Security Division] confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets,” the DOJ wrote in a summary judgment court filing on September 1. “FBI again confirmed that they do not have any such records by consulting with personnel knowledgeable about Director Comey’s statements and the surveillance activities of the FBI.”
Trump also blamed failed military action on Obama.
Trump even blamed Obama for his own military failures
After a botched raid in Yemen that killed a Navy SEAL, Trump said, “this was a mission that was started before I got here.” The president made the final decision to forge ahead with the raid, according to Politico.
When he announced that 59 missiles flew into a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack there, he immediately cast the blame on his predecessor.
“These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” he said. According to Business Insider, dozens of people died in a bombing on a hospital during that event. Activists described the attack as among the worst in the country’s six-year war.
“President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Trump said. “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.”
The president’s inability to take accountability for his actions points to a larger problem.
Trump can’t take responsibility for his actions, and the cracks are beginning to show
As a Vox commentary pointed out, “When presidents and commentators talk about the sacred and solemn duty of honoring wounded and dead soldiers, they’re not just speaking in clichés. They’re making a statement about the kind of moral psychology you must have to make regular decisions about death and war without growing emotionally calloused and inhumane.”
Trump, by his actions, demonstrates he cannot fathom the idea that he must express empathy for loss of life. He cannot accept that he may have made a mistake in the Niger mission, or that he may have made a mistake, period. This marks a dangerous lack of empathy that means the president cannot consider others’ positions. If he can’t show empathy during a phone call to a bereaved widow, can he do it when writing policy?
“Even if an action is, all told, still justifiable, its costs should weigh on the actor,” Vox writes. “He should feel the gravity of his role in what happened, and take seriously the human toll, even if his mind does not change in response.”
Wise words, indeed.
Follow The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!