President Donald Trump has a unique talent – and taste – for making bad situations worse. For making wild claims, then failing to back them up. He was at it – once again – on Wednesday morning when he tweeted about his now controversial Tuesday evening conversation with the widow of an American soldier killed in Niger.
That last sentence alone would’ve been enough to set off a five-alarm fire in any past White House. “Damage control mode,” or whatever you want to call it, exists for a reason. But the Trump presidency approaches that concept with disdain. Where his predecessors wielded fire extinguishers, Trump prefers a flame tosser.
And so, he woke up, apparently took in the reviews of his chat, and tweeted this:
But first, a quick rewind. How did we get here?
In brief: reporters asked Trump on Monday why he hadn’t spoken out about four soldiers killed nearly two weeks earlier during an ambush in West Africa. He didn’t quite answer, but did say he planned to call their families. (Yes, there was more, but let’s keep focused.) A day later, Trump made contact with the wife of slain Sgt. La David Johnson. Then, according to the family and Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, who listened in to their exchange, Trump offered this chestnut: “(Johnson) knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”
Whatever the particular context, the path forward here – both as a matter of political course and simple manners – was pretty simple: Say sorry, or nothing, and move on.
But those things are anathema to Trump. He doesn’t apologize or keep quiet and, by his own admission, is incapable of letting criticism pass. And we learned a while back that there are no exceptions for the families of US soldiers killed on the battlefield.
So Trump beat on, tweeting against the current of decency, accused the congresswoman of lying and – here’s the most important part – suggested that he had “proof” to back up his claim. As per usual, he did not provide any evidence to verify its existence, nor did he characterize its form. Is it a tape? A transcript? Did he record the conversation?
The answer is no, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. On Wednesday afternoon, she was asked by CNN’s Sara Murray about the “proof,” and told reporters in the briefing room that “there were several people in the room from the administration that were on the call, including the chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly.” In short, no audio record – meaning Trump’s evidence begins and ends with his word and those of his aides.
Again, even taking Sanders at her word, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. This President’s priors all but guaranteed it. Back in May, he tweeted that James Comey, the FBI director he’d fired days earlier, “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” A 40-day wild goose chase later, Trump conceded he’d been bluffing.
And then there was the false accusation he leveled against former President Barack Obama back in March.
“Terrible!,” he tweeted, in the voice of friend calling you up to share some upsetting gossip. “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
A day later, Sanders, then a deputy to former press secretary Sean Spicer, claimed Trump was simply repeating what he’d read in the papers or seen on television.
“Everybody acts like President Trump is the one that came up with this idea,” she said. “There are multiple news outlets that have reported this.”
That was, of course, false. Trump and his staff offered increasingly painful deflections and head fakes thereafter. The first and perhaps most memorable came when Spicer parroted a Fox News analyst’s charge – which the network’s news division ran away from – that Obama had outsourced the job to British intelligence, which drew the UK’s prime minister and its GCHQ into the mess. They quickly and crossly denied it and the White House duly backed off. Both Comey and NSA director Mike Rogers would also shoot down Trump’s claim during sworn testimony on Capitol Hill.
In her comment to reporters on Wednesday, Sanders, like her predecessor, breathed some new air into this latest round. By naming Kelly, the chief of staff and father to a son killed in combat, as one of the people “on the call,” Sanders drew one of the administration’s top officials into the morass.
Kelly is probably mindful enough to stay mum, but the questions now have new legs – and the situation as whole seems ripe to further deteriorate.