But Johnson’s mother Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who was also in the car, told The Washington Post, “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.” She declined to elaborate but told the Post that Wilson’s account was accurate.
In Trump’s defense, comforting people who have just lost a family member is difficult. They are, reasonably, upset and angry. (Dana Perino tells a story of George W. Bush being moved to tears by an angry mother.) Perhaps the president intended to say something about the sense of duty soldiers feel, and it was simply taken the wrong way.
But it’s difficult to give Trump too much benefit of the doubt, or to take seriously the White House’s statement that “the president’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private.” By taking a question on Monday about his response to the Niger attacks as an invitation to brag about his outreach to military families, the president chose a fight about his methods of consolation, and chose to make it a public one.
On Monday, Trump told reporters he had written letters to the families of the four men who were killed in Niger, and that he intended to call them. He explained the delay, saying, “I'm going to be calling them. I want a little time to pass.”
Trump also claimed that his predecessors hadn’t done anything like that. “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls, a lot of them didn't make calls,” he said. Later in the press conference, he backed off a little. “President Obama I think probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn't. I don't know. That's what I was told. All I can do—all I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. And some presidents didn't do anything,” he said.
On Tuesday, Trump returned to the fight, saying Obama had not called John Kelly, then a Marine general and now White House chief of staff, after Kelly’s son Robert was killed in Afghanistan. “I think I’ve called every family of someone who’s died,” Trump said.
It is not just that Trump claimed, falsely, that his predecessors had insufficiently consoled grieving families of servicemembers. He also spent most of the last month wrapping himself in the flag while waging a fight with NFL players and other athletes who have kneeled or undertaken other protests during the National Anthem. The athletes say these protests are a way of bringing attention to police violence and racism. But Trump has insisted that the kneeling “has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem.” The president has used his powerful Twitter account to pass along the idea that players who kneel are slighting the American military.
Even as he insists that NFL players are disrespecting the military, Trump did not make any public comment about the deaths in Niger until he was asked about it at a public press conference. Only after this prodding, and his bragging that he called every family he could, did Trump make a call to La David Johnson’s family. And when he did, he botched the call badly enough that he left Johnson’s widow in tears and his mother feeling disrespected. The president cannot be both the foremost patriot and the utmost consoler while at the same time dragging his feet on calls and angering military families.