Once again, Donald J. Trump, our commander-in-chief, thanks to the mathematical vagaries of the Electoral College, is in a dispute involving the family of a service member killed in combat. This time, the controversy stems from a phone call Trump made to Myeshia Johnson, wife of Army Sergeant La David Johnson, who was killed in an ISIS ambush in the African country of Niger recently.
According to Representative Frederica Wilson (D, FL), Trump told the widow that Sergeant Johnson “knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” Trump, as he is prone to do, went immediately on the offensive, tweeting that the representative’s account was a total fabrication.
White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a former marine whose son was killed in combat in Afghanistan, went public to ‘explain’ the situation and ‘defend’ the president, and in the process exposed Trump for the liar we all know him to be. According to Kelly, Trump tried his level best to ‘communicate warmly, with empathy.’ In his remarks, Kelly alludes to the fact that Trump did indeed use language similar to that claimed by Wilson, but added that he was stunned and broken-hearted by her conveying these details to the media.
This is a lot of he-said, she-said, with both sides digging in. Just to keep the smoke swirling, I’d like to add a possible third scenario for consideration.
It is possible that Trump did want to be warm and caring in his calls to the families of the deceased, but you must remember that we’re dealing here with Donald J. Trump, former reality TV personality whose catch phrase is ‘you’re fired,’ and who was coached by former McCarthy-era lawyer to deal with criticism by attacking with overwhelming force. Trump, to my knowledge, has never shown empathy in his life, and is incapable of considering anyone’s feelings but his own. Added to this, anyone who has listened to him speak when he’s not reading prepared remarks, has to have noticed that he is not the most erudite of people. He rambles, repeats, utters unconnected sentences, and pretty much says whatever pops into his mind. I, for one, can easily imagine him on the phone, without a written script, saying something along the lines of what he’s accused of saying, and thinking to himself—if he ever thinks while he’s talking—that this is a pretty neat thing to say.
During my time in the army, I served on occasion as a casualty assistance officer, a duty that required me to interact with the families of soldiers killed in Vietnam. I can tell you, in situations like this, you’re walking on egg shells. The wrong word, and the wrong time, or in the wrong way, given the grief these people are experiencing, can blow up in your face. Even for those of us with military experience, it was often difficult to find the right way to say the right thing. Trump, whose military experience consists of being exiled to a military school where he apparently didn’t even learn bugle calls, can hardly be expected to understand the sense of loss involved here.
Here’s where the real problem is, in my humble opinion. Rather than acknowledging that he might have expressed himself less sympathetically than required, apologizing for any grief his words caused, and moving on, Trump did what Trump does whenever anyone criticizes him—he attacked like a wounded pit bull, and began hurling accusations. Liar, liar, pants on fire, he screams at Wilson. His knee-jerk reaction is yet another example of a man who is not a deep thinker, not even a medium deep thinker, for whom the truth is whatever he says, and anyone or anything contradicting him is ‘fake.’
In this case, it’s his pants that are burning. And, it’s his inability to reflect on his words and actions, his refusal to take responsibility for his shortcomings or admit that sometimes he’s just . . . wrong, that lit the match.
I almost feel sorry for John Kelly. His sense of loyalty to his boss seems to have trumped (no pun intended, really) his sense of integrity. While he didn’t explicitly lie, his mealy-mouth defense of Trump came close, perilously close to it.