As Donald Trump told a crowd in Battle Creek that the deceased Michigan Representative John Dingell might be in hell, his widow Debbie Dingell, who occupies his former seat, was back in Washington on the House floor as Democrats voted to impeach him.
“Debbie Dingell, that’s a real beauty,” Trump said, “So, she calls me up, like, eight months ago — her husband was here a long time.” It was actually Trump who called Dingell after her husband’s death in February.
In a series of unfinished sentences and odd impersonations, Trump went on to claim that Debbie had asked for special treatment to honor John, requesting that flags be lowered and that he lie in state in the Capitol rotunda, which never happened.
“But I didn’t give him the B treatment,” Trump said. “I didn’t give him the C or the D — I could’ve. I gave the A-plus treatment.” As if to impersonate Debbie, he said, “Take down the flags.” Then, in a voice that suggested someone else asked him the question, he said, “Why you taking them down?” He answered the question in his own voice, “For ex-Congressman Dingell.” Then he assumed the other character, “Oh, okay.” Then he was Debbie again, “Do this, do that, do that. Rotunda.”
“Everything,” he said, “I gave him everything. That’s okay. I don’t want anything for it. I don’t need anything for anything. She calls me up, ‘It’s the nicest thing that’s ever happened, thank you so much, John would be so thrilled, he’s looking down, he’d be so thrilled. Thank you so much, sir.’ I said that’s okay, don’t worry about it. Maybe he’s looking up, I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe.”
Some people in the crowd groaned, but at first, Debbie Dingell had no reaction at all.
“What did he say?” she asked me, in disbelief. She’d just left the House floor with a group of her colleagues, including Fred Upton, a Republican member from Michigan, when I reached out to ask her if she wanted to comment. I told her what the president said, apologizing for even repeating the words.
She paused. She said she wasn’t sure what to say. She said she had to think about it.
Forty-five minutes later, she issued her statement: “Mr. President, let’s set politics aside. My husband earned all his accolades after a lifetime of service. I’m preparing for the first holiday season without the man I love. You brought me down in a way you can never imagine and your hurtful words just made my healing much harder.”
To me, she said: “I’ve been one of the most measured members there is, so he may be mad because — I don’t know why he’s mad. I can’t explain why he’s fixated on me.”
I couldn’t stop picturing a moment from earlier this year, when I saw the congresswoman at a campaign stop for Joe Biden in Detroit. Biden, who was widowed at age 30 and who has also lost two children, was a close friend of John’s, and I looked on as he embraced her and whispered in her ear. I couldn’t hear what he told her, but she nodded solemnly. “I love you,” he said, as he walked away. She said she loved him, too.
She turned around and took questions from a few of the reporters who saw the exchange. She apologized as her eyes welled with tears. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I really miss my husband today.” I noticed she was wearing a collection of his rings on a chain around her neck.
“I think it’s what makes me a better member,” she told me later. “You know what I do? I miss John everyday, and I have really hard days, and you keep yourself so busy that you can’t feel. You just keep going so you don’t have time to think or feel, and you take that energy of missing somebody as much as I miss my husband, and you take that and put it into a passion of helping other people. I’m raw. I’m sad. But I’m not gonna sit home and feel sorry for myself. I’m gonna go out and do what he would want me to do, and that is to be there for other people.”