WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday rejected as “totally fabricated” a Democratic congresswoman’s account of his condolence call to the widow of a fallen soldier, although the mother of slain Army Sgt. La David Johnson said the president had been disrespectful.
“He knew what he signed up for . . . but when it happens, it hurts anyway,” Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida told Miami-based Local 10 News, quoting Trump’s remarks about Johnson.
“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” the service member’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Washington Post.
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who did not deny that Trump said the soldier “knew what he signed up for,” countered that Trump was “completely respectful, very sympathetic” and commended Johnson’s heroism.
La David Johnson, 25, was one of four U.S. troops who died in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger.
The dueling interpretations of the Tuesday phone call from Trump to Myeshia Johnson came a day after her husband’s remains were repatriated. In video from Local 10 News, the pregnant widow is seen bent over her husband’s American flag-draped coffin.
Trump tweeted Wednesday morning: “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
Asked about the proof, Sanders said there was no recording but several administration officials, including White House chief of staff John Kelly, were in the room when Trump made the phone call. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, believed the exchange was appropriate, she said.
The president on Tuesday had invoked the 2010 combat death of Kelly’s son in doubling down on his claim that former President Barack Obama had not properly consoled the families of fallen soldiers. “You could ask General Kelly did he get a call from Obama,” Trump told Fox News Radio on Tuesday.
A day earlier, asked by a reporter why he had yet to publicly discuss the Niger attack, Trump pivoted to his belief that Obama and other predecessors didn’t call Gold Star families.
The claim was met with a storm of rebuke from officials of past administrations, Democrat and Republican, offering examples of former commanders in chief calling, writing or visiting with troops’ loved ones.
Sanders said Wednesday she wasn’t sure if Kelly knew beforehand that Trump would cite his late son, 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly. The president and his chief of staff have spoken multiple times since, she said.
The press secretary appeared to criticize news media coverage of Trump’s remarks. “General Kelly is disgusted by the way that this has been politicized,” she said.
Sanders also denounced Rep. Wilson’s handling of the condolence call as “appalling and disgusting,” but would not go into the details of what exactly was said.
The congresswoman in news interviews said she was in the car with the Johnson family en route to the Miami airport to receive the soldier’s remains, heard part of the president’s call and witnessed Myeshia Johnson break down in tears afterward.
“Anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. And that’s the way we interpreted it,” Wilson told CNN. “And it was horrible. It was insensitive.”
Wilson said Myeshia Johnson told her Trump didn’t even know her husband’s name.
Trump told reporters Wednesday at the White House: “I didn’t say what that congresswoman said, I didn’t say it at all, and she knows it.”
He referenced Myeshia Johnson, though not by name. “I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman,” he said.