President Donald Trump’s chronic inability to turn the other cheek to a perceived slight has landed the White House with a crisis on multiple fronts over his handling of the ISIS ambush in Niger that killed four US troops.
Trump’s reflexive boast that he was more attentive to the relatives of war dead than his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush set off a cascade of consequences that has left his White House reeling. A full-blown political drama erupted when Trump was accused by a Democratic congresswoman of insulting a widow of one of the soldiers killed in the clash.
The chain of events offers lessons in how a President walks a rhetorical tightrope every time he speaks and underlines how Trump’s outspoken bluster and relish for confrontation that was so successful on the campaign trail threatens to undermine his hopes for a successful presidency.
It’s a behavioral pattern of Trump’s presidency: He reacts viscerally to what he sees as an attack, whips up a showdown, and ends up eroding his own political position.
The resulting rumpus over Niger meanwhile also exposes the bitter dynamics of Washington in 2017, where the President’s enemies immediately embrace any version of events that puts him in a bad light, and where the White House quickly retreats into a defensive crouch and slams the media for misrepresenting the President.
It was inevitable that questions would mount about the Niger operation, given the administration’s reticence to speak about the October 4 ambush.
But Trump made the situation infinitely worse with a bristling answer to an innocuous question in a White House Rose Garden press conference alongside Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell on Monday.
He defended his response to the killing of the American soldiers by arguing, falsely, that he had been more solicitous to bereaved relatives than Bush and Obama, who spent hours with wounded soldiers and grieving relatives of those killed in operations they ordered.
By Wednesday, the controversy had spiraled out of control. Trump was being forced to respond to allegations that in the call with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, he did not know the fallen serviceman’s name and he had indicated that the soldier knew “what he signed up for.”
The President responded angrily to that version of the call, relayed by Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida.
“I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren’t too surprised to hear that,” he told reporters.
After a chaotic day of revelations and pushback on Wednesday, the White House was struggling to answer a clutch of questions about the deaths of the soldiers in closely held anti-terror operations in West Africa.
After a string of controversies about Trump’s demeanor and empathy, he is now yet again being accused of failing at the ceremonial aspects of the job.
Some of that may be unfair, since consoling the relatives of fallen soldiers sent into action at their command has tested many previous presidents.
And a number of military families who appeared on television on Wednesday described calls with Trump in which the President offered consolation and passed on the gratitude of the nation.
However, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders conspicuously failed to deny reports Wednesday that the President was insensitive by telling Johnson’s widow her husband knew what he signed up for.
“The President was completely respectful, very sympathetic,” Sanders insisted.
What happened in Niger?
In what may turn out to be the most significant development on Wednesday, the White House and the Pentagon are facing increasing questions about how 50 ISIS-affiliated attackers were able to ambush the soldiers two weeks ago.
John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday warned the administration was not being forthcoming about what exactly happened in the attacks.
“We deserve to have all the information,” McCain said.
And the White House press secretary also faced questions about why it took 12 days for the President to respond directly to the Niger ambush.
Politico reported Wednesday that National Security Council staffers drafted a statement of condolence by Trump to make soon after the incident, but it was never released. It was not immediately clear why, though the reports that Johnson was missing on the battlefield might explain why the White House did not initially publicize the extent of the engagement.
Check to family of fallen soldier?
The controversy expanded further when The Washington Post reported that the President had offered to send a $25,000 check to the father of a fallen soldier over the summer – but the check wasn’t received.
The White House lashed out, saying that the media was “disgusting” for exploiting Trump’s generous gesture to advance a “biased” narrative.
Only later did a White House official confirm to CNN that the check was only sent on Wednesday, making it look like Trump only acted when confronted by the Post’s revelations.
In another development, the widow of another fallen solider told CNN that she had been told to stick close to the phone soon after her husband was killed and to expect a call from the President, but he never called.
“I don’t like that I was told I would receive the phone call but I never did,” the woman, Whitney Hunter, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar in a poignant interview.
At a contentious White House briefing on Wednesday, Sanders branded the media a “disgrace” for misrepresenting Trump’s act of kindness by making the call to Johnson’s widow.
And she accused Wilson of an “appalling” attempt to politicize the issue – even though it was Trump on Monday who first introduced politics into the aftermath of the Niger raid by jabbing Obama and Bush.
Wilson said that she listened to Trump’s call with Johnson’s widow Myeshia.
Cowanda Jones-Johnson, a family member who raised Johnson, told CNN that Wilson’s account of the call was “very accurate.”
The President tweeted that he had “proof” that he was in the right, briefly reviving speculation that he had a taping system in the White House until it was swiftly shut down by the White House.
Trump and Kelly
Renewed intrigue also surrounded the relationship between Trump and John Kelly, after the President drew the death in Afghanistan of his chief of staff’s son into the controversy on Tuesday in an interview on conservative talk radio.
Trump asked whether Obama had called Kelly to offer condolences, and the White House later confirmed such a conversation did not take place.
Asked how Kelly was reacting to his son’s sacrifice being politicized, Sanders again absolved the President and turned on the press.
“General Kelly is disgusted by the way that this has been politicized, and that the focus has become on the process and not the fact that American lives were lost. I think he’s disgusted and frustrated by that,” Sanders said.
The squabbling in Washington is particularly undignified when compared to the sacrifice of soldiers who might have expected better from political leaders.
“The only thing that matters … is not what the President feels or what a congresswoman thinks,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
“These Gold Star families have sacrificed more than we can ever imagine.”