When asked on Monday why he had yet to say anything about the deaths of four U.S. service members killed when they were ambushed by ISIS fighters in Niger on October 4, President Trump said he had drafted letters to their loved ones, and planned to call them too. Then he tried to deflect criticism by falsely suggesting that President Obama and his other predecessors did not regularly call the families of fallen soldiers.
Trump then doubled down on the claim, implying that Obama hadn’t called his chief of staff John Kelly after his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Kelly, who has tried to keep his son’s death out of the political arena, attended at least two events the Obamas held for military families in the years after his son’s death.
Incredibly, the story took an even more appalling turn on Tuesday evening. In his call with Sergeant La David T. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, on Tuesday, Trump said, “He knew what he signed up for … but when it happens, it hurts anyway,” according to Representative Frederica Wilson.
The congresswoman told WPLG Local 10 News in Miami that she listened to the entire call on speakerphone while she was riding in a limousine with Johnson’s family to meet his casket at the airport. Wilson told the Washington Post that Johnson broke down when Trump made the remark. “He made her cry,” Wilson said, adding that she wanted to take the phone and “curse him out,” but the Army sergeant holding the phone wouldn’t let her talk to the president.
Wilson reiterated her account on CNN, adding that when Trump called Myeshia Johnson had just been told her husband can’t have an open-casket funeral.
By Wednesday morning, Trump had chimed in on Twitter. He claimed Wilson had “totally fabricated” what he said to Johnson’s widow. He added, in parenthetical, that he “had proof,” though he did not offer any.
Trump disputed Wilson’s characterization again on Wednesday. “I didn’t say what the congresswoman said,” he told reporters. “I did not say what she said.”
But Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, backed up the congresswoman’s story. Jones-Johnson, who said she was in the car with her daughter-in-law when President Trump called, confirmed Wednesday to the Washington Post that Wilson’s report was accurate. “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” she told the paper.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when asked what “proof” Trump had that Wilson’s account was false, told reporters that the conversation with Johnson’s widow had not been recorded. However, she said, several staffers, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, sat in on the call.
“The president’s call, as recounted by multiple people in the room, believe that the president was completely respectful, very sympathetic, and expressed the condolences of himself and the rest of the country, and thanked the family for their service, commended them for having an American hero in the family,” Sanders said, “I don’t know how you can take that any other way.”
Sanders focused on the tone of Trump’s remarks to Johnson’s family, and did not specify exactly what was said. “I think it is appalling what the congresswoman has done and the way she has politicized this issue,” she said.
Sergeant Johnson, 25, leaves behind two children, a 6-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, and Myeshia is six months pregnant with their third child. Friends praised his dedication to his family, and the determination he showed in working his way from a job at Walmart to becoming a special operations soldier, fighting alongside Green Berets. He was a member of 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a mentorship program founded by Wilson, which set up a scholarship fund for his children.
As The Atlantic’s David A. Graham argued, whether intentionally or not, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric over the past two days shifted the focus to defending previous presidents from his attack, and away from questions about what happened in Niger. The Pentagon has not offered many details about the attack, and an administration official told CNN that nearly two weeks later it’s still unclear what happened.
Twelve U.S. soldiers from the Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group were accompanying about 30 Nigerien troops on a mission near Tongo Tongo, Niger. According to CNN, following a meeting with local leaders, the troops were ambushed by roughly 50 ISIS-affiliated militants wielding small arms, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades.
The U.S. soldiers were armed only with rifles, and had traveled to the site in unarmored pickup trucks. The U.S. troops called in French fighter jets for air support, but they were unable to engage. Reuters said they could not help because the firefight was at close quarters, but multiple officials told CNN that Niger does not allow air strikes on its territory.
Eventually French military helicopters were able to evacuate the dead and wounded U.S. soldiers. The remains of three U.S. soldiers — Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson, and Dustin Wright — were retrieved, but somehow Sergeant La David Johnson was separated from the rest of the group. His body was recovered two days later.
Reuters reported that French officials were frustrated by the actions of the U.S. military, and felt it acted with limited intelligence and insufficient contingency planning. Marine Lieutenant General Frank McKenzie, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, told reporters the mission was “not designed to be a combat patrol,” but there was a “pretty good level of planning” and French forces responded within 30 minutes. Later, Defense Secretary James Mattis said he “completely rejected” any notion that the rescue effort was too slow.
The Defense Department said on Tuesday that it is launching an internal review of the mission in Niger. The preliminary findings are expected by the end of the week, but will likely remain classified.
Both Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain and Jack Reed, the committee’s top Democrat, have said the Trump administration needs to be more forthcoming about what happened in Niger.
“I think the administration has to be more clear about our role in Niger and our role in other areas in Africa and other parts of the globe,” Reed said. “They have to connect it to a strategy. They should do that. I think that the inattention to this issue is not acceptable.”
Representative Wilson, a Democrat, said the Johnson family needs answers, and called for a congressional probe.
“They were upset because they don’t know why he was separated from the rest of the soldiers,” Wilson continued. “This could turn out to be another Benghazi, and I have asked for an investigation.”
This post has been updated throughout.