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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Ambush of U.S. troops looms larger than Trump-centered drama

From left, Richard Johnson Sr. holds La David

From left, Richard Johnson Sr. holds La David Johnson Jr,. Ah'Leesya Johnson, and Myeshia Johnson, the wife of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, attend Sgt. Johnson's burial on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Credit: AP

The relevant question is what happened in Niger.

So far, we’ve mostly heard the heartbreaking fallout.

Trump deflected a question last week on why he had nothing to say publicly for 12 days about an alleged terrorist attack that left four U.S. servicemen dead.

The Republican president did this by making another of his false claims about his Democratic predecessor.

Then Trump got on the phone to the widow of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson. Whatever he said, it struck the family as insulting, and chief of staff John Kelly was left to clean up another of Trump’s public-relations messes.

Basic questions about the Oct. 4 attack now loom large.

The answers to these questions may eventually explain Trump’s apparent determination to avoid associating himself with the entire matter.

Democrats have, of course, begun calling this “Trump’s Benghazi,” referring to the embassy attack in Libya during President Barack Obama’s tenure that launched years of GOP congressional probes and conflicting accounts.

The circumstances here sound dramatically different, although the suspicion on Capitol Hill no doubt echoes the same concern: that Americans deployed to a strife-ridden place were put in harm’s way.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said: “We at the Department of Defense like to know what we are talking about before we talk. We do not have all the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it.”

On Friday came word that the FBI had joined the Pentagon’s probe of events.

U.S. forces are in Niger because it is a transit route for such ferocious groups as ISIS, al-Qaida and Boko Haram. The troops first arrived in 2013, assisting the French military. There are drone bases and surveillance missions.

Officials and others have told news media that eight to 12 U.S. soldiers were on some kind of mission near Tongo Tongo. They reportedly met with village leaders and were ambushed by an estimated 50 militants as they tried to drive back to their base. There was a firefight.

The remains of three of the fallen were retrieved. It took nearly 48 hours to recover Johnson’s body; he’d become separated from the rest of the group.

Previously, the Pentagon has said, 29 other such patrols were carried out without hostile actions. Questions about air cover, intelligence and the movement of neighboring Chad’s troops have been broached, but not yet fully answered.

Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee are demanding more information.

The queries have just begun.

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