Over the course of less than three days, President Donald Trump turned a backhanded shot at his predecessors into a full-blown public-relations disaster involving his White House and multiple Gold Star families.
Trump falsely claimed that Barack Obama and other presidents did not call the families of deceased U.S. servicemen, invoked his chief of staff’s son’s death in Afghanistan to support the claim, told a new Gold Star widow that her husband “had to know what he signed up for,” and offered the father of another deceased veteran a $25,000 check that the man says he never received.
For a president hardly immune to self-inflicted wounds, the episode represents, perhaps, a pinnacle own-goal—one defined by both an unquenchable penchant for vindictiveness and the muddying of a subject considered sacrosanct in U.S. politics: the honoring of fallen troops.
The cascading series of controversies may have been avoided entirely if Trump had simply released a statement drafted for him by his National Security Council recognizing the deaths of four U.S. servicemen in Niger on Oct. 4.
That statement, which was printed in full by Politico on Wednesday, never was formally made public, but instead appears to have been worked into comments made by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders the day after the attack. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the fallen servicemembers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of the freedoms we hold so dear,” she said, in language closely mirroring the statement drafted for the president.
All the while, Trump remained silent. It would take him 12 days before personally addressing the Niger incident. And he did so only after having been asked a question at a press conference Monday in the Rose Garden.
That press conference would turn out to spark more problems than it solved. Trump couldn’t help but boost his own magnanimity by comparing himself to predecessors who, he claimed, had not called the families of U.S. veterans killed in action. “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said. Told that was not true later in the conference, Trump backtracked.
But by the next morning, he once again brought Obama into the fray, telling a host from Fox News that his predecessor had not called Trump’s chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, when Kelly’s son died in 2011. Shortly after, White House officials began backstopping the president, anonymously telling reporters that Obama had, indeed, not called. As The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday, senior White House officials signed off on this specific line of attack as legitimate communications strategy, in response to Trump’s comments.
Obama aides were appalled by the episode, noting that the former president and his wife had Kelly at an event for Gold Star families. Several told The Daily Beast they couldn’t possibly fathom that Kelly had sanctioned Trump to turn his son into a political cudgel.
And, it appears, he hadn’t. The next day, Sanders relayed from the podium that Kelly had likely not cleared Trump to say what he had to Fox News Radio though he had told him about this son and Obama.
“I’m not sure if he knew of that specific comment,” said Sanders, “but they had certainly spoken about it.”
By that point, however, Trump had invited another, related controversy upon himself. In a call he had made to the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the deceased soldiers in Niger, the president reportedly said, “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” The account was relayed by a Democratic congresswoman from Florida who had been in the car at the time. Trump, naturally, said the entire thing was fabricated. But the soldier’s mother subsequently confirmed it and Sanders later said that the wording was right, just not properly interpreted. Either way, those present said the widow, Myeshia Johnson, was visibly upset by President Trump’s words to the point of crying and breaking down.
If angering a grieving mother wasn’t enough, Trump’s initial self-defense was coming apart, too. Though he had insisted that he, unlike Obama, liked to make personal calls to the families of dead soldiers, several of those family members relayed that they had not heard from Trump.
One of the fathers who did hear from the president told The Washington Post that Trump had offered to give him $25,000 for his loss. (Trump insisted to the father that no other president had ever made such a gesture, which was not technically true). The check never came; at least not until the story was published.
“The check has been sent,” White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told The Washington Post, in response to their reporting. “It’s disgusting that the media is taking something that should be recognized as a generous and sincere gesture, made privately by the president, and using it to advance the media’s biased agenda.”
The Daily Beast emailed Walters and the White House press shop to find out when, exactly, said check was sent. She would not address the question, and simply emailed over the same statement given to the Post. When The Daily Beast followed up asking, again, when this alleged check was sent.
“I told you that the check has been sent,” Walters tersely replied.
A subsequent inquiry asking for a clarification of the date was not returned.
CNN later reported that the check was sent Wednesday.
Trump has, remarkably, survived previous political feuds with Gold Star family members. There was the episode with the Kahn family during the campaign. And there was the time he angered the father of a Navy SEAL killed in a Yemen raid. Perhaps, this episode will play out similarly.
Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, pointed to that history as evidence that Trump and his team have exploited veterans issues to their political advantage, and that this week’s controversies were only the latest examples.
“You have to look at this as a tone and to some extent as a strategy, and maybe reflective of his brand of leadership,” Rieckhoff said in an interview. “Trump on the campaign trail brilliantly understood that veterans and the military are the ultimate populist issue.” As a result, he said, “they’re consistently choosing to focus on issues that are extremely divisive and put military veterans and Gold Star families in the middle of it.”
The result this week, Rieckhoff lamented, has been “what could be the most unprecedented politicization of the military since Vietnam.” He worries that that politicization will tarnish the military’s image more broadly. “The controversy inevitably drives people away,” Riekhoff said. “We’re concerned it’s going to affect philanthropy. We’re concerned it’s going to affect recruitment.”
Already, there are signs, however, that Trump has invited more scrutiny to his administration than he possibly could have intended. Asked if the administration was being upfront about what happened in Niger, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told CNN, “No.” This week, per White House proclamation, is “National Character Counts Week.”