President Donald Trump’s phone call Tuesday to the widow of a soldier killed in action in Niger has, somehow, turned into a she said/he said situation.
The “she” is Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson who said she was present when Trump called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson and allegedly told her of her late husband “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”
The “he” is Trump, who tweeted this morning that “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
Trump doubled down on that sentiment later Wednesday in a meeting on tax reform at the White House. “I didn’t say what that Congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all. She knows it. And she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said.”
What we now have is this: The President of the United States in a war of words with a Democratic congresswoman – and, by extension, the widow of a fallen soldier – over what he said when he called her to offer his condolences after the death of her husband. And both Trump and Wilson are alleging they have “proof” that the other is lying.
This is not the normal course of affairs in a White House – or, frankly, any level of politics. It speaks – yet again – to how Trump has fundamentally altered the way in which a president acts in public or in private.
Doubt it? Ask yourself whether you can imagine either Barack Obama or George W. Bush (or any president) openly feuding about whether he told a grieving widow of an American soldier killed in action that “he knew what he signed up for.” It is, quite literally, unimaginable.
For those who are taking Trump’s side in all of this – alleging that Wilson is simply trying to score political points against a president the Democratic base hates – it’s important to remember a few things we know about Trump.
1. In the summer of 2016, he engaged in an extended back and forth with Khizr Khan, the father of an American soldier killed in Iraq, following Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. Responding to Khan, who suggested Trump didn’t know the meaning of real sacrifice, Trump said: “Who wrote that? Did Hillary’s script writers write it? I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard.”
2. Trump has not told the truth about lots of things. LOTS of things. The count maintained by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog was more than 1,300 lies or mistruths from Trump in his first 263 days as president. In a press conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday, Trump said at least 9 things that were either debatable or simply false.
3. Trump has claimed he has “proof” many times. He has shown that “proof” almost never. As documented by Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, here are other things Trump has said he had “proof” about: President Obama wiretapping Trump Tower during the 2016 campaign, that the women accusing him of sexually inappropriate behavior were lying, Obama being born in a foreign country, Obama’s college transcript, alleged crimes by UN Ambassador Susan Rice and that former FBI Director James Comey was lying about their personal conversations. [Narrator voice: He didn’t have proof of any of this.]
All of that context has to be considered as we attempt to figure out who is telling the truth – and who isn’t – in this he said/she said situation.
It’s also worth asking why Wilson would totally fabricate what Trump said on the call. What would her motive be?
“I have no reason to lie [to] the President of the United States with a dead soldier in my community,” Wilson told Alisyn Camerota on “New Day” on Wednesday. “I have no time, I have no motive.”
Republicans might suggest that Wilson’s motive is purely partisan. That as a Democrat, she will do whatever it takes to embarrass the president. Possible, I suppose. But would Wilson really choose the death of an American soldier as the place to go after Trump – particularly given the target-rich environment he presents?
Short of Wilson totally lying about the nature of the conversation, the best possible explanation for Trump is that what he said was misinterpreted. Calling a recently widowed woman of a soldier killed in action is an incredibly difficult thing to do. That’s especially true for Trump who, as a businessman prior to running for office in 2016, never had to do anything remotely like this.
Given that inexperience, it’s absolutely plausible that Trump expressed a real sorrow somewhat inarticulately, leaving Johnson’s widow and Wilson upset. And that Trump did so entirely unintentionally.
But, Trump can never admit something like that. He always has to ramp up controversy and drama rather than play it down. Hence his tweet this morning insisting Wilson is lying and he has proof of that fact.
That burden of proof now very much lies with Trump – although, if past is prologue, he isn’t likely to ever produce any actual proof.
Regardless! This moment should be about the four soldiers who gave their lives in service to the country. Instead it’s a he said/she said fight with the President of the United States right smack dab in the middle of it.
“Modern-day presidential” indeed.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated. Sgt. La David Johnson was working with a special operations unit, but was not a Green Beret.