On October 4, U.S. Army Sergeant La David Johnson died in Niger. This week, President Donald Trump has picked a fight with Johnson’s grieving family and friends. It is not the first time Trump has quarreled with the distraught survivors of a U.S. serviceman killed in action, but it is the first such feud he’s advanced while serving as commander-in-chief.
Johnson was stationed in Niger as part of a low-profile U.S. campaign against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in West Africa. On October 4, Al Qaeda fighters ambushed a U.S. Army Special Forces patrol 120 miles north of the Nigerian capital, Niamey, killing Johnson and three other American soldiers. While global news media covered the ambush after early confirmations from the Pentagon, Trump went 12 days — from October 4 through October 16 — without offering any public comment on the ambush or its casualties. On Monday, a reporter asked Trump to explain why he hadn’t publicly acknowledged the death of the four U.S. servicemen. Trump answered that he had written letters to the fallen soldiers’ families, and he then argued that his predecessors rarely offered personal condolences to military families who suffer casualties. “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said at the press conference. “I like to call when it’s appropriate.” On Tuesday, Trump told Fox News Radio, “I have called, I believe, everybody, but I will use the word virtually everybody.”
There’s no dispute that Trump reached out to Johnson’s family. After the October 4 ambush, Trump called Johnson’s pregnant widow, Myeshia. U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a friend of the Johnson family, joined the call, as did White House chief of staff John Kelly. In a Wednesday-morning interview with Morning Joe, Wilson (content removed) Trump forgetting Sergeant Johnson’s name before telling his widow that her late husband “knew what he signed up for” by enlisting. “But,” Trump conceded to Myeshia Johnson, “I guess it still hurts.” On Wednesday, Trump disputed Wilson’s characterization of his remarks, though Sergeant Johnson’s mother endorses Wilson’s account. On Wednesday, Sergeant Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Washington Post, “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”
Trump’s offense of the Johnson family reveals that the president’s disrespect for U.S. soldiers abides despite his increasing reliance on U.S. military leaders — such as his chief of staff, the retired Marine general John Kelly — to staff, stabilize, and legitimize his administration. And yet Trump defies the military leadership’s advice against banning transgender soldiers from service. He disparages the families of soldiers who have died while fighting abroad. He’s gone so far as to mock Senator John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Trump exploits the military’s credibility, defending the flag and “the troops” in his culture war against Steph Curry, Colin Kaepernick, and the NFL. Still, Trump will disgrace a dead soldier’s memory and humiliate their parents. As if to firmly, proudly distinguish himself from any other president who has ever taken a soldier’s name or memory in vain, Trump will make these citizens the butt of his tweets. He will drag yet another grieving family into an indecent news cycle, which ensures that Americans will remember these soldiers if only because, in death, they were a nuisance to Trump.
Trump didn’t limit his bullying to Wilson and the Johnson family. As the president initially defended his public silence in a Tuesday interview with Fox News Radio, Trump challenged reporters to ask Kelly whether Barack Obama had called or wrote to him after the November 2010 death of his son, Robert Kelly, a Marine lieutenant who was killed by a landmine while he was on patrol in Afghanistan. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, speaking on background, according to BuzzFeed News’s Steven Perlberg, later told reporters that Obama did not call Kelly to offer his immediate condolences. Trump’s critics quickly noted that Kelly and his wife, Karen Hernest, had sat with Michelle Obama at a May 2011 breakfast that the White House hosted to honor U.S. soldiers recently killed in action. On Thursday, Kelly addressed reporters in the White House briefing room, where he clarified that he meant no harsh judgment against Obama by noting to Trump that his predecessor hadn’t called him. Kelly’s remarks followed Sanders’s statement to reporters Wednesday that Kelly was “frustrated” and “disgusted by the way that this has been politicized.” Of course, neither Sanders nor Kelly nor the president himself have acknowledged that it was Trump who first mentioned Kelly’s son and invited reporters to rehash the events surrounding his death.
Trump famously demonstrated his wild disregard for U.S. military service last year when he feuded with the parents of U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in a June 2004 suicide bomb attack in Iraq. After Khan’s father, Khizr, addressed the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Trump criticized Khan’s mother, Ghazala, for declining to speak as she stood by her husband at the DNC lectern. The Clinton campaign, the Democratic Party, and GOP leaders all condemned Trump’s remarks, and his burgeoning feud with the Khan family marked the height of GOP discomfort with Trump until the Access Hollywood tape leaked a couple of months later. Trump never apologized to the Khan family, though Trump’s son Eric would later describe his father’s later characterization of Captain Khan as a “hero” as an implicit apology. Trump moved on from the Khans without remorse or real repercussions, and so it comes as no surprise, really, that his contempt for U.S. servicemembers would resurface as flagrantly as ever in the president’s feud with Wilson and the Johnson family.
In the first year of his presidency, Trump has prized the U.S. military above all other institutions in American life, even as he treats marginalized servicemembers and Gold Star families with lies and disregard. As his administration has suffered dramatic infighting and high-level staff departures throughout its first year, Trump has staffed his White House with military leaders, including Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, in order to mimic some measure of discipline and order. But despite Kelly’s hype, Trump’s White House is no less vindictive, chaotic, or bizarre than it was under former chief of staff Reince Priebus; the supposed emergence of discipline in the White House couldn’t prevent the president from invoking Kelly’s dead son in order to score counterfeit points for empathy. By now, Kelly and the rest of the brass must know that Trump’s contempt for people who embarrass him far outweighs his grace and sense of duty. The false hints of stability that these military officers lend Trump’s administration are as illusory as the respect that Trump offers servicemembers and their families. The pretense of masculinity that Kelly, McMaster, and Defense Secretary James Mattis afford Trump obscures a figure who is notoriously frivolous, petty, and “manly” only insomuch as he is horrible to and for women. Trump will make a mockery of John Kelly before Kelly can ever make a man or a patriot out of him.
It is strange to consider that 15 years of GOP concern trolling about the absolute sanctity and wisdom of “the troops” now culminates with the election of a Republican president who speaks so recklessly about military sacrifice. This week, Trump is overbooked. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported on Trump’s failure to follow through on a $25,000 donation that he promised to a grieving military family in June after their son, Dillon Baldridge, a U.S. Army officer, was killed in Afghanistan. The White House later told CNN that Trump had, in fact, cut a check to the family the same day that the Post made Trump’s oversight into a headline (“Trump offered a grieving military father $25,000 in a phone call”) that couldn’t have come in a worse week for him. But Trump will offer no apologies. He will simply move on from the Baldridge and Johnson families, having barely committed the names of these soldiers to memory before sending his rudest condolences to their next of kin.