Hindsight is 20/20, but sometimes foresight has a sharp focus, too.
It was fairly clear a week ago that the White House should have gotten out in front of questions about the deaths of four Special Forces soldiers earlier this month in Niger. The men had been killed on Oct. 4, but there had been almost no word from the White House. No explanation, no condolences — just brief comments from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders including a statement on Oct. 6 that, “We’re continuing to review and look into this.”
By Monday of this week, when President Trump decided to hold an impromptu news conference in the White House Rose Garden, the administration should have been ready for questions on the subject of the soldiers’ deaths. When a reporter raised it, Trump’s response didn’t suggest a great deal of preparation. Instead, he tried to one-up past presidents by claiming that he was going above-and-beyond in calling the families of the soldiers who had been killed.
Trump’s incorrect (and rapidly debunked) assertion that he was doing something that past presidents hadn’t was like dropping a snowball at the top of a mountain. As the week went on — and as Trump and his team kept making more and more mistakes and misstatements — the snowball grew and grew, consuming five days of media attention.
We’ve done our best to illustrate how a bad situation was made much worse. On the chart below, blue boxes indicate decisions or comments that continued or worsened the situation for the White House. More detail and links to news stories follow.
The White House offers little comment on Niger. This primes the media to dig deeper.
Trump claims that past presidents didn’t call gold-star families. Even before the news conference ends, this claim is largely debunked. The effect of it is to draw attention to when and how Trump makes those calls.
Trump claims that he’s called the families of “virtually everybody” killed in action during his presidency. A race is on. The AP finds that about half of the 20 families they spoke with hadn’t been called. The Post finds that one father was promised a $25,000 check that was never sent. On Friday, Roll Call reveals emails showing that the White House scrambled to get a list of people to call after Trump made this claim.
Trump says that President Barack Obama didn’t call White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly after Kelly’s son was killed. Kelly had tried not to politicize his son’s death and it appears that Trump didn’t clear it with Kelly before doing so.
Trump calls the family of Sgt. La David Johnson and makes comments they find frustrating. Those comments are first revealed to the press by Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who was in a car with the family when Trump called. She indicates that Trump said that Johnson “knew what he signed up for,” which the family found to be callous.
Nonetheless, Trump again says Wilson was incorrect. At the daily White House press briefing, Sanders makes it pretty clear that the “proof” is simply that other people were in the room with Trump when he made his call, including Kelly.
Kelly disparages Wilson by recounting the opening of a new FBI building in 2015, during which he says she made inappropriate comments. The next day, a local newspaper in Florida publishes video of Wilson’s speech, undercutting Kelly’s claims.
When the media asks that Kelly address his false statements, Sanders tells the media that it is “highly inappropriate” to question a general. Kelly’s current role, of course, is a civilian one. In short order, examples emerge of Trump questioning generals.
Trump repeatedly insults Wilson on Twitter, calling her wacky. After he does so on Sunday, Wilson responds.
Trump tells Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo that he was “so nice” during his call with Johnson’s widow. That assertion is undermined when Myeshia Johnson is interviewed on “Good Morning America,” telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that Trump’s call “made me cry. I was very angry at the tone of his voice, and how he said it.” She also asserts that Trump couldn’t remember La David Johnson’s name.
Trump replies on Twitter.