This article has been updated.
If the White House is looking for a silver lining to President Trump drawing the nation’s attention to his handling of the deaths of Special Forces soldiers in Niger, it’s that people are at least not as focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. (The storm made landfall there four weeks ago; less than a fifth of the island has electrical service.) If the White House wanted to demonstrate that Trump was incapable of making a bad situation worse, though, the week has been a disaster of its own.
Two weeks ago, four Special Forces soldiers were killed in Niger, where they had been dispatched to participate in a patrol with troops from that country. While Trump had flown to Dover, Del., in February to meet the remains of a Navy SEAL killed in a botched raid in Yemen — a service member whose name Trump invoked during his joint address to Congress later that month in defense of that raid — he made no public statement about the deaths in Niger and didn’t attend the soldiers’ returns to the United States.
It wasn’t until Monday that he said anything about the deaths, when pressed by reporters at a news conference. His response, rather than tamping down questions, ended up beginning days of criticism. Clearly hoping to give the impression that he was going above and beyond in paying tribute to the soldiers, he said that he would be calling their families, something he claimed that his predecessors didn’t do but that he does regularly. He had already written letters over the weekend, he said. (Over the previous two weekends, he’d also gone to his golf club in Sterling, Va., on both days — and on the preceding Monday.)
His claim that previous presidents hadn’t called the families of soldiers who had been killed in action was rebutted even before the news conference was over, prompting Trump to revise his claim to suggest that it was the combination of calls and letters that set him apart.
The next day, though, his staff told reporters that Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, hadn’t received a call from President Barack Obama when his son was killed while serving — after Trump raised the point in a radio interview. By Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that Trump’s claim that he generally called the families of those killed wasn’t the case with several families with which the AP had spoken. Update: The Post identified several other families who hadn’t been called — about half of those we approached.
Trump did call the families of those killed in Niger — but that went south, too. His comments to the wife of Sgt. La David T. Johnson reportedly included an aside about how Johnson “knew what he signed up for,” which the family, listening in, understandably considered disparaging. Trump denied the comment Wednesday morning, accusing a Democratic member of Congress who first mentioned the comment of having “fabricated” it. Johnson’s mother confirmed it to The Washington Post.
This was an avalanche of mistakes that Trump created, mistakes that compounded mistakes.
The first mistake was that Trump didn’t acknowledge the soldiers’ deaths at the outset. Why he didn’t do so isn’t clear. As David Graham pointed out at the Atlantic, the White House said on the day after the attack that the administration was “continuing to review and look into this,” implying that there was still some uncertainty. But the soldiers’ bodies soon returned to the United States; Trump could certainly have at that point mourned their passing.
The second mistake was compounding that inaction by trying to insist that he was doing more than what was expected of a president. It’s the classic excuse of the kid who didn’t do his report so he asks for more time because, instead of a report, he’s doing a full diorama. But in this case, it was Trump saying that no one had ever done a diorama before, in front of a national audience that had seen a lot of dioramas.
The third mistake was in trying to defend that claim by dragging another personal tragedy into the debate to serve as his witness: the death of Kelly’s son. The move didn’t prove his case and, instead, forced Kelly into a fray that he has long sought to avoid.
The fourth mistake was claiming that he’d regularly made those calls in the past, raising the natural question of whether he had. Before Monday, a president not calling every family that had sacrificed a loved one to the country wasn’t newsworthy. Trump made it newsworthy.
The fifth mistake was compounding the new attention he’d drawn to those calls by apparently saying something that was interpreted by members of the family as disrespectful. Presidents’ outreach to the families of soldiers killed in combat has often traditionally been private, as staff members for those presidents noted after Trump’s news conference comments. By making those calls a public issue, Trump raised the bar he’d need to exceed to have them go well. It seems they didn’t.
This is what Trump does. Not only can we point to past examples of him taking a bad hand and making it worse, we can point specifically to a previous example of him making his handling of a family of a fallen soldier worse.
Last year, Khizr and Ghazala Khan took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to accuse then-candidate Trump of disrespecting the memory of their son, Capt. Humayun Khan, a Muslim American who had been killed in Iraq, by suggesting that Muslims be barred from entering the country. It was a stunning and emotional speech — and Trump’s handling of it kept the family and the story in the news for days as he kept adding new areas of critique.
His first response was to praise the Khans’ son, while stating that the parents had “no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution, (which is false) and say many other inaccurate things.”
He then went on television and said of Ghazala Khan — who didn’t speak during the convention — “maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” a clear insinuation about the status of women in some Muslim places. Ghazala Khan spoke out in response, by way of an opinion piece in this paper.
Trump summarized his thinking in a tweet.
I was viciously attacked by Mr. Khan at the Democratic Convention. Am I not allowed to respond? Hillary voted for the Iraq war, not me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 31, 2016
He was, of course, welcome to do whatever he wanted. It’s just that the response from the public might not be favorable. (In fact, it wasn’t; three-quarters of those polled by The Post and ABC disapproved of Trump’s response to the Khans.)
Trump can’t help it. Even before the election, that was clear to the public, which consistently questioned his temperament. But both the Khan dispute and Trump’s response to the deaths of soldiers in Niger are examples of Trump’s instinctive defensiveness working against his long-term benefit.
What’s remarkable is that Trump didn’t learn this lesson last year.