Calling the widow of an American soldier killed in action is, emotionally speaking, absolutely gut-wrenching. Knowing that nothing you will say can bring true comfort. Knowing a life – and likely many lives – have been altered forever. Facing down pure loss and pure grief.
As difficult as it is emotionally, it is just as simple politically speaking. You call – or write – expressing deepest sympathies and condolences. You offer any assistance you can. The end.
Which makes what President Donald Trump has done – and is doing – with Myeshia Johnson (and Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson) all the more appalling.
On Monday, in an interview with “Good Morning America,” Johnson, the widow of slain Sgt. La David Johnson, spoke for the first time in public about her phone call with Trump. She confirmed Wilson’s account that Trump had told her that her husband “knew what he was getting into” and added: “It made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it. He couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”
To which Trump almost immediately replied via Twitter: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”
It’s staggering to consider what Trump is doing here.
After spending the weekend attacking Wilson for allegedly lying about the nature of the call between himself and Johnson – even though White House chief of staff John Kelly confirmed last week the basics of Wilson’s account of the words Trump used – the President is now suggesting that the widow of a soldier killed in action is lying.
There’s simply no other way to read this. Johnson says Trump couldn’t remember her husband’s name. Trump says he used La David’s name “without hesitation” from the start of the call. Both of those things can’t be true.
Here’s the thing: It is absolutely possible that, at root, this is all one big misunderstanding. Trump, awkward and unfamiliar with the empathy required to make this sort of call, came across as callous and uncaring to Johnson and Wilson in an entirely unintentional way. They were offended.
At that point, Trump could have made much – maybe all – of this go away by simply calling Myeshia Johnson back and saying something along these lines: “I’m so sorry our previous call made you upset. I struggle with every death of an American soldier and I simply am not great all the time at conveying how much your loss means to me and the country.”
Would Johnson (and Wilson) be totally satisfied? Maybe not. But, it would be a respectful gesture to someone who has just lost a husband fighting for this country under orders from the commander in chief.
It would be taking the high road. It would be saying: Whether or not I said the right things, they weren’t received in the way I meant them. So I am going to admit that and move on.
Doing that, of course, would mean not being Donald Trump. Throughout his life – in the business world and over the past two-plus years in politics – Trump has repeatedly shown a lack of empathy for people who are not him. And he has demonstrated, on a near-daily basis, that he will say and do anything in support of “winning.”
That includes crossing lines in terms of criticizing the military.
He attacked Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who spent almost six years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, as a war hero only because he was captured. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” (Trump received five medical deferments – including one for “bone spurs” – to avoid Vietnam service.)
He hit back at Khizr Khan, a Gold Star father who lost his son in Iraq in 2004, after Khan gave a speech critical of him at the Democratic National Convention. “Who wrote that? Did Hillary’s script writers write it?” Trump said of Khan’s speech. “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard.”
And now this – perhaps the lowest Trump has sunk: Disputing the account of a condolence call with a recently widowed soldier’s wife.
Put aside, for a moment, the fact that Trump seems largely incapable of empathy. That’s a massive problem in any person, much less in someone who is the leader of the free world.
Consider only how badly Trump botched this from a political perspective. We are now on Day 8 of this story, which boils down to: “Trump calls widow of soldier who died in battle, upsets her, disputes nature of call.”
Politically speaking, this was a layup. Trump not only missed the layup. He threw the ball over the backboard and out of the gym. Then he went and found the ball in the hallway and deflated it.
It’s hard to imagine how Trump could have handled all of this any worse. And what’s amazing is that there is a 0% chance he will admit that he mishandled it or try to make things even marginally better with Johnson or Wilson. Instead, if past is prologue, he will continue on the attack and then use any public appearance in the coming weeks to insist events proved him right.
Stunning – even for Trump.