President Trump on Wednesday revived the controversy over his handling of a condolence call with an Army soldier's widow, disputing Myeshia's Johnson's claim that he did not seem to remember her husband's name and calling into question the memories of others who heard the conversation.
Speaking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing for a fundraiser in Dallas, Trump said he called Army Sgt. La David Johnson — who was killed after an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger that is still being investigated — by his correct name "right from the beginning."
"One of the great memories of all time," the president said, pointing at his head with his left hand. "There's no hesitation."
Trump also said he had not specifically authorized the mission in Niger, which left four U.S. soldiers including Johnson dead and has prompted a slew of unanswered questions about how the mission went awry.
"No I didn't, not specifically, but I have generals that are great generals — these are great fighters, these are warriors," he said. "I gave them authority to do what's right so that we win. That's the authority they have. I want to win and we're going to win."
After Trump first called Myeshia Johnson more than a week ago to express sympathy for her husband's death, the president has waged a back-and-forth war of words with the pregnant widow and others who listened in on the call.
Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), a family friend of the Johnsons, had criticized the president for insensitivity, saying he had upset Johnson by saying her husband "knew what he was getting into," and seeming to bungle his name.
The White House disputed Wilson's claims, which were then reiterated by an aunt who raised La David Johnson and by Johnson's widow, who in a Monday interview with ABC's "Good Morning America" told ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos, "I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband's name."
"And that's what hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country, and he risked his life for our country, why can't you remember his name?" Myeshia Johnson said. "And that's what made me upset and cry even more, because my husband was an awesome soldier."
On Wednesday, Trump again pushed back on the claim about La David Johnson's name, repeating it to reporters and saying he had stated it correctly during his initial call — in part because he was provided with a chart that had the fallen soldier's name written out.
"I certainly respect La David, who I, by the way, called La David right from the beginning," he said. "Just so you understand, they put a chart in front — 'La David,' it says 'La David Johnson.' So I called right from the beginning."
The firestorm has dragged in not only Trump, Wilson, and Johnson, but also the president's Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who made a surprise appearance at the White House news briefing last Thursday to defend Trump and attack Wilson for allegedly politicizing a Gold Star family's heartache. But in doing so, Kelly made false claims about Wilson that were later disproved by videotape.
Trump struck a more deferential tone in his latest comments than he had in some earlier statements, largely praising Johnson and calling her "a lovely lady" while also defending himself.
"I was extremely nice to her," Trump said. "She sounds like a lovely lady. I've never seen her, I've never met her, but she sounds like a lovely lady. But I was extremely nice to her, I was extremely courteous, as I was to everyone else."
The president added that he respects both her and her family, including her late husband. "I think she's a fantastic woman," he said. "I was extremely nice to her, extremely respectful."
As for not authorizing the Niger mission, Trump's remarks were reminiscent to comments he made earlier this year following the death of Senior Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, a U.S. Navy SEAL who was the first U.S. servicemember under killed in the line of duty during Trump's term.
At the time, Trump refused to accept responsibility for the covert mission he had authorized, saying in a Fox News interview that the mission "was started before I got here" and seeming to blame the military by saying, "And they lost Ryan."
Trump's impromptu, 15-minute news conference Wednesday came as he was fending off attacks from members of his own party — namely Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (R-Az.), who announced Tuesday he was not seeking reelection and delivered a scathing floor speech excoriating Trump.
In response to a question about whether he should behave more civilly, the president, in rapid succession, blamed the media and cited his Ivy League education.
"I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am," he said. " I went to an Ivy League college, I was a nice student, I did very well. I'm a very intelligent person."
The press, he said, "creates a different image of Donald Trump than the real person."
In the next breath, however, he returned to his attacks. "Well I think it's always okay, when somebody says something about you that is false, I think it's always okay to counterpunch or to fight back," Trump said.