As is often the case in the age of Trump, the list of problems born of what the president has said and what it may mean is long this week.
First, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said that President Trump, while offering his condolences to the young, pregnant widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, said that the soldier “knew what he signed up for.” Then came the president’s counterclaims that he never said any such thing and “had proof.” Besides, the president insisted, most presidents — including Barack Obama — did not call dead soldiers’ survivors at all.
Now the administration has taken aim at Wilson. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly said the congresswoman took credit for bringing a $20 million FBI field office building to Florida at a public ceremony in 2015. He said Wilson had played no such role and likened her to “empty barrels making the most noise.”
But again, there was a problem. Wilson noted she wasn’t even in Congress when lawmakers allocated money for the building in 2009. Instead, she and others, including then-FBI Director James B. Comey, spoke about her role in getting the building named in honor of two slain FBI agents. Video of Wilson’s 2015 speech disproved Kelly’s account.
The Washington Post interviewed Wilson about the phone call at the center of a Trump-made storm and the problems created by what happened afterward. What follows is a Q&A with Wilson, edited for clarity and length.
Q: What precisely did you hear the president say to Sgt. Johnson’s family, and how did you come to hear it?
A: I was accompanying the Johnson family on the trip to the airport to greet Sgt. Johnson’s coffin when President Trump called to offer condolences to his widow, Myeshia Johnson. The call took place on speakerphone. I heard him say something to the effect of Sgt. Johnson “knew what he was getting into. but I guess it still hurts,” as if to say that’s what you get. He did ask her to reach out if she needs anything but also kept calling Sgt. Johnson “your guy,” instead of saying his name or acknowledging that this was her husband.
Q: What was your initial reaction when you heard the president suggest that Sgt. Johnson “knew what he was getting into?”
A: I was shocked when I heard the statement and shocked that a president of the United States could be so callous and cavalier toward a grieving young wife and mother. Then I grew angry, especially when I saw Myeshia’s heartbreak all over again. Sgt. Johnson was only 25. He is the father of two with a baby on the way. The purpose of such a call is to offer condolences and honor the immeasurable sacrifice that he and his family have made in service to this country. President Trump’s remarks had the opposite effect.
Q: Did you see or hear the family react in any way to that portion of the conversation?
A: The family was just as astonished by his remarks. Myeshia dissolved into tears, not only because of his blatant insensitivity, but also because Mr. Trump appeared to not even know her husband’s name. In an interview the next day, he referred to her as “the woman” and “the wife.” The whole incident was a disgrace.
Q: The president has made a number of comments that have made people question whether he is lacking in empathy, particularly lacking in empathy for nonwhite Americans or somehow unable to express any empathy that he may have. What do you make of this argument?
A: I definitely believe that Mr. Trump lacks empathy and compassion and in some instances common sense. How else can one explain the horrific sight of him free-throwing rolls of paper towels into a crowd of people who were desperate for the most basic staples and resources? Let’s also not forget the Virgin Islands. While his response to hurricane victims in Texas and my home state of Florida was admirable, he has left hanging those living in American territories who happen to be primarily people of color.
Mr. Trump is more interested in winning and will do or say whatever he believes is necessary to bring him closer to that goal, especially if it helps keep his base support intact. That is why, when the violence erupted in Charlottesville, he tried to equate white supremacists with those protesting overt historical and contemporary racism. It is also why he is so outraged by the NFL players taking a knee to protest racial inequities. In fact, he’s been much harder on them than on white nationalists.
Sgt. Johnson and his fellow slain soldiers were killed during an ambush in West Africa. They were part of the elite U.S. Special Operations Command, so I cannot imagine that Mr. Trump was not quickly informed. And still, he golfed for two days and took several days to acknowledge their deaths. That says a lot.
Q: So when White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, and Trump begin criticizing you this week for listening to the call and describing your decision to share what you heard as unconscionable, what did you think?
A: I think it’s a stunning mischaracterization of the actual facts. General Kelly has deservedly earned a reputation as an honorable man who has served our country well. It was extremely disappointing to hear him criticize my motives because I was with the family to provide comfort and support.
His distortion of the facts surrounding my speech at the dedication of the FBI building was unconscionable and frankly untrue, and unfortunately extended this story for another news cycle. The focus should instead be on honoring Sgt. Johnson’s memory and investigating the circumstances surrounding the ambush in Niger so we can provide closure to the four families who lost loved ones.
What both General Kelly and Mr. Trump fail to understand is that despite the president’s best intention, his words and the tone in which he delivered them did not provide solace to Myeshia Johnson. She is a young woman who has suffered an immeasurable loss, and it is incomprehensible to me why they ever believed that the words used by his best friend to comfort General Kelly — both military officers — when he tragically lost his son would have the same effect on a grieving widow who, in a few months, will deliver the couple’s third child without her husband.