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Criticism over Trump's public response to the deaths of the four US soldiers has been fierce

"Politically this is sacred ... Gold Star families have incredible sacred credibility and should be off limits," said Paul Rieckhoff

Washington CNN  — 

President Donald Trump’s controversial response to the deaths of four US soldiers has evolved into a politicized war of words with a Democratic congresswoman and – by extension, the widow of a fallen service member – sparking concerns that the US civilian-military divide may be at a crisis point.

Outrage spilled over on social media late Tuesday night amid claims by Florida Democrat Rep. Frederica Wilson that Trump told the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson – one of the US soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month – that “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”

Trump took issue with Wilson’s recollection of the call on Wednesday morning.

“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!” he tweeted. He did not immediately provide proof to back the claim.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that “there were several people in the room from the administration that were on the call, including the chief of staff John Kelly.”

Cowanda Jones-Johnson, a family member who raised Sgt. Johnson told CNN on Wednesday that Wilson’s account of the call between Trump and Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, was “very accurate.”

Criticism over Trump’s public response to the deaths of the four US soldiers has been fierce and loud in recent days but many veterans say that the situation dramatically escalated once the President directly contradicted claims made by one of the Gold Star families involved.

“This man is a sick man,” Wilson said Wednesday morning on CNN’s “New Day,” responding to Trump’s tweet. She added that Johnson’s widow “broke down” after her call with Trump, saying the President “didn’t even know his name.”

Karen Meredith, the Gold Star and Military Families coordinator for VoteVets, who lost her son, First Lt. Ken Ballard, in Iraq, said Trump’s “actions and words on this entire matter of the fallen in Niger is disgraceful, and unbecoming of a President of the United States and commander in chief.”

“This is not about you, it is about them. It is about all of us who lost our loved ones, in war,” Meredith added. “For once in your life, please stop making everything about you. For once in your life, at least pretend to know what empathy is.”

Trump was initially knocked for his silence and failure to contact the families of the slain service members two weeks after the ambush occurred. But on Tuesday the brother of one of the soldiers killed – Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, a Green Beret – said that Trump’s timing might have been for the best.

“I’m glad that it’s taken a little bit of time because my family has been extremely overwhelmed,” Will Wright told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo on “New Day.”

The uproar had reached a boiling point on Monday when Trump addressed the deaths of the four men for the first time and falsely claimed that his predecessors hadn’t called the families of slain troops during their tenures.

Retired Gen. Marty Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush in a tweet that said: “POTUS 43 & 44 and first ladies cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust.”

Trump fueled the controversy further on Tuesday by floating the idea that reporters ask his chief of staff, retired Gen. John Kelly, whether Obama called him after his son died in Afghanistan.

Kelly, according to media reports, has tried to keep his son’s death private.

“Every president deals with combat deaths differently … but none should ever politicize it the way Trump has,” said CNN national security analyst and retired US Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby on Tuesday. “That’s the real point here.”

Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the father and mother of Army Capt. Humayun Khan who was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, issued a sharp rebuke of Trump in a written statement offering condolences to the families of the four fallen soldiers.

“We stand with the families in their grief and pray for their strength and peace. And tell them that this nation will never forget the service and sacrifice the brave hero sons made on behalf of this great nation and for our liberty and safety; their families’ service and sacrifice will also be always remembered,” the Gold Star family’s statement said.

“We are also saddened to see unbecoming of the President behavior of Trump, his lack of empathy, selfish and divisive actions have undermined the dignity of the high office of the presidency, one more time he has shown the nation him undeserving of the leadership of our great nation,” it said.

The Khans have been critical of Trump dating back to the 2016 election when they were at the center of a controversial feud with the then-Republican candidate.

Trump attacked the Gold Star parents repeatedly over the course of the campaign despite insisting they did not seek out the confrontation.

“He still doesn’t comprehend the gravity of the responsibility he bears,” Kirby added.

While critics hit Trump hard for what was seen as politicizing the situation, some members of the veteran community were open to giving him the benefit of the doubt in terms of his intentions and responsibilities as commander in chief.

Craig Gross, Gold Star father of Cpl. Frank Robert Gross who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2011, told CNN on Wednesday that his experiences with Trump have been positive.

“I believe that (Trump) has a very good heart as far as Gold Star families is concerned,” Gross said. “His words are basically being taken and misconstrued.”

That interview occurred before Wilson’s account was corroborated by a member of the Gold Star family.

The conversation changed Wednesday when Trump staunchly denied Wilson’s claims even though the account was backed up by the very Gold Star family his call was meant to comfort.

While Sanders told reporters Wednesday that Gen. Kelly, who was present for the call to Sgt. Johnson’s widow, thought the call was “completely appropriate” and “respectful,” many in the veteran community told CNN that, the merits of appropriate debate on protocol cease to exist once the conversation no longer aligns with the best interests of these Gold Star families.

Ultimately, the “only thing that matters in the midst of all this political back and forth is not what the President feels or what the congresswoman feels – it is what Mrs. Johnson feels,” according to Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“Politically this is sacred … Gold Star families have incredible sacred credibility and should be off limits,” he added. “If George Washington was making these comments he’d get pushback.”

As things stand, Trump remains in a unique position to stop this, according to Rieckhoff, who added, “most of all we have to put this family first.”

But Trump’s tendency has always been to double down – even in situations involving decorated veterans or their families, a trend that also reflects the President’s willingness to politicize the military despite the potential long-term consequences his actions could have on public discourse and military morale.

“The President doesn’t have to punch back,” Rieckhoff told CNN.

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) is encouraging “everyone to reach out to families who live in your community, coworkers at your office, and those you encounter elsewhere to reassure them their loved ones’ service and sacrifice will never be forgotten.”