Frederica Wilson is no liar. On Thursday, Gen. John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, confirmed that. Kelly also made clear that he works for a man who has redefined the meaning of shameless.
The Florida congresswoman is the latest—and pointedly, the latest woman and person of color—to be attacked by Trump for daring to tell the truth about him. She joins a roster that includes broadcaster Jemele Hill, the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and before that, a Latina former Miss Universe. Now add in Hillary Clinton and the more than a dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual harassment or assault. Trump has attacked or threatened a few men too, notably black NFL and NBA stars, Gold Star father Khizr Khan (along with his wife), decorated Vietnam War veteran John McCain and other United States senators, but he typically reserves his greatest vitriol for those who aren’t white and male. We’re all still waiting for the president’s sure-to-be-blistering response to Eminem.
Trump on Wednesday used one of his increasingly frequent press availabilities to essentially call Wilson a liar, after she told the world what he said to the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson; one of four special forces soldiers killed during a still murky mission in Niger. Wilson first gave her account to local reporters in Miami who met the limousine carrying her, Myeshia Johnson and Sgt. Johnson’s adoptive parents to the funeral home to claim the body of the fallen soldier. Apparently, the White House had alerted the media that he would call Johnson’s widow, evidently hoping to reap some rare good press for the most hated president in modern U.S. history.
She later repeated what she heard to national news outlets and to this reporter.
According to Wilson, who was sitting in the limo with the family, and an Army representative who held the phone and put it on speaker so that the distraught Mrs. Johnson could talk with the president, Trump never used Sgt. Johnson’s name, referring to him only as “my guy.” During a call that lasted some five minutes, the commander in chief reportedly told Mrs. Johnson that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” adding: “but I guess when it happens, it hurts anyway.”
“He knew what he signed up for.”
“I guess when it happens, it hurts anyway.”
By now, Trump’s lack of human empathy is no longer news. He has displayed his empty soul on numerous occasions, whether scribbling his name on the wall of a shelter after petting black children in Houston following Hurricane Irma, tossing “very soft” paper towels at a pre-assembled crowd in Puerto Rico after he and his high heel-clad wife deigned to visit the island after Hurricane Maria, or ignoring the U.S. Virgin Islands—hit by both storms—altogether. “Donald J. Trump does not care about black people” would be an understatement if a rap star were to utter the phrase during a telethon.
This time, he did more than just disrespect yet another Gold Star family. He compounded his usual cruelty by denying what he said to Sgt. Johnson’s widow, insisting with his trademark Mussolini pucker that Rep. Wilson knows that he didn’t say it and essentially daring her to repeat it.
According to Wilson, Sgt. Johnson lost his mom when he was just 5 years old. He and his brothers were raised by the aunt and uncle who were in that limo with Wilson and Myeshia Johnson when the call from the White House came in. When he called the congresswoman a liar, he called the family, who confirmed her account to The Washington Post, liars too.
On Thursday, Trump took the outrageous to further depths. Having already evoked the dead son of his own chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, in defense of himself, Trump sent Kelly before the cameras not to laud this grieving family, but to join Trump in attacking the congresswoman.
Kelly, himself a Gold Star father, solemnly repeated the words that Trump said to Sgt. Johnson’s widow, essentially putting the lie to his boss’ claim that they were never said.
“He knew what he was getting himself into.”
Kelly had a kinder spin, saying he himself heard those words from his best friend, General Joseph Dunford, when his son was killed in combat—and that the sentiment behind them was meant to convey his fallen son’s bravery, not a callous disregard for a life lost. Kelly went on to attack the congresswoman for listening in on the call, despite the fact that he too was on the phone, listening.
The irony is rich beyond words.
Donald J. Trump, a man who cowered from military service during the Vietnam war, hid behind the valor a decorated soldier and grieving Gold Star father to cover the shame of his own botched attempt at sentimentality.
Donald J. Trump, whose relationship with the truth is so fraught that The New York Times and other media outlets have taken to cataloguing his daily fabrications. Who just this week, when called out for saying nothing about the four dead soldiers in Niger or bothering to call their loved ones for 12 days, unleashed the vicious slander that Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush never called the families of fallen soldiers, a lie he also trotted Kelly out to bolster.
Donald J. Trump, a man who has disrespected the service of John McCain and the grief of the Khan family, wrapped himself in Gen. Kelly’s service, and used him as a battering ram against a congresswoman and a grieving family.
As to why Wilson was in that car, listening to that call, the answer is simple: because Myeshia Johnson and her family wanted her there.
Frederica Wilson has known the Johnson family since the late La David Johnson was a child. Members of Johnson’s family attended the school named for Frederica Wilson, who in 1993 founded the 5000 Role Models of Excellence—a nonprofit that focuses on helping black boys become outstanding black men. La David Johnson was a Role Models alumnus. Both of his brothers participated in the program, including one who is training to be a firefighter. Miamians have come to recognize the boys in the program by their signature red neckties and impeccable manners. They are literal golden boys, who go on to become doctors and lawyers and leaders across Florida and the country.
“I mentored this young man from a little boy in elementary school through high school,” she told the ABC hosts, when challenged by Meghan McCain on why she released the details of that call, which Wilson added she did so simply because she was asked by reporters what Trump said. “We sent him to college… These are people that I have known since they were little children. His uncle went to my elementary school. I was his principal.”
Miami is a big city that feels like a small town where everyone knows everyone, particularly in the city and surrounding county’s black enclaves. Wilson, known to many in black South Florida as “the hat lady” for her signature collection of millinery, doesn’t have to pretend to know her constituents, whom she represented in the state Senate before running for the seat vacated by Kendrick Meek, himself the son of the legendary congresswoman Carrie Meek. Ask 10 black people in Miami about Wilson and you’re bound to find one or two who were taught by her in elementary school, had her as their principal, were subject to a maternal rebuke from her on the streets of Liberty City or Miami Gardens, or knew her as their representative in Tallahassee.
Wilson was one of just two prominent Democrats to endorse Barack Obama in the 2008 Florida primary, breaking with the then black congressional delegation and a majority of black Floridians, who at the time supported Hillary Clinton. She once told me in the parking lot of the Miami auditorium where Obama was speaking in July of 2007, “How can we tell these young black boys that they can be anything they want to be if we don’t throw our arms around this outstanding young man now?”
Today, Wilson has taken on the role of keeping alive the memory of another outstanding young man, Sgt. Johnson. This includes demanding answers about how he died, why it took so long to find his body, and why he seems to have been separated from the other soldiers with whom he perished in Niger.
“I’m not interested in a back and forth with Mr. Trump,” Wilson told me, her voice rising. “La David was a Green Beret. What my community wants to know is why was he the last one found. Why did it take two days to find his body? Why wasn’t he in an armored truck? Why did they leave him? That’s what I want to know, and Senator McCain is on that question, and so is Senator [Marco] Rubio. That’s what my community wants to know, and that’s what I am going to find out!”
Johnson was part of a task force fielded to advise Niger and other African militaries fighting the ISIS-linked terrorist group Boko Haram. For more than two years, Wilson has championed the cause known by the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, calling for the return of girls kidnapped by the group. That fact only makes Johnson’s death more personal to her. Wilson was the most emotional in describing how profoundly Myeshia Johnson is struggling to cope with the loss of her husband.
“She weighs 100 pounds soaking wet,” Wilson said. “She’s six months pregnant and now has to raise those three kids by herself. She lost her mom two years ago. She is just devastated.”
Mrs. Johnson’s nightmares are made worse, Wilson said, by the fact that she was told by the Army that she won’t be able to have an open casket funeral. Imagine wondering as you close your eyes and try to sleep at night, what that means for the condition of your husband’s body and what might have happened to him in Niger. And then imagine your husband’s commander in chief telling you “he knew what he signed up for.”
With due respect to Gen. Kelly, whose unimaginable sacrifice grieves the nation as well, it may not have bothered him to hear those words about his own son. But he is a soldier, who has learned to accept such words. Myeshia Johnson is a young mother who was laid low by them. What right does he have to question what she felt when she heard that steely phrase, particularly when uttered by such a president? And now that the general has become fully political, joining his boss in leveling personal insults against the congresswoman, why should anyone believe for another instant that he remains in his position to protect this country from Trump’s more dangerous impulses, and not because he is of one mind with him?
The funeral for Sgt. La David Johnson will take place on Saturday. Frederica Wilson will be there. She says she is done talking about Donald Trump. Her focus now, she says, is on the death of LaDavid Johnson, and caring for the family he left behind.
One can only hope and pray that this grieving family, and the families of the three other brave men who died in Niger, will find some measure of peace, and that the collective empathy of a grateful nation can in some way substitute for the cold comfort offered to Mrs. Johnson and her family by the president of the United States.