On Oct. 4, U.S. Special Forces troops on a mission in southwestern Niger were ambushed by militants, resulting in the deaths of four U.S. service members and an ally from a partner nation.
All conversation about this event should be focused on the simple, essential points of an after-action review: What went wrong, and how do we prevent it from happening again? Unfortunately, that’s not the story dominating headlines.
In response to a reporter’s question about why he had not spoken on the attack and if he had contacted the loved ones of those killed in action, President Trump launched into a bizarre defense that has since spiraled into a full-blown feud with a grieving family.
First, he falsely claimed that President Obama and other former presidents “didn’t make calls.” To defray the outrage over this lie, he then invoked the death of one of his staff’s own kin. While subsequently making the calls, he reportedly seemed to forget Sergeant La David T. Johnson’s name, and told his widow that Johnson “knew what he signed up for.” And finally, he is now denouncing a congresswoman’s account of that call and insisting he has “proof” to the contrary — despite the soldier’s mother confirming his indelicacy.
Like most of President Trump’s worst behavior since he took office, there is little precedent for his actions in political history, but plenty of similar examples among his own conduct.
Candidate Trump, after all, engaged in another weeks-long row with a Gold Star family just last July. After Khizr and Ghazala Khan spoke on stage at the Democratic National Convention and questioned his capacity for sacrifice, he responded with an attack on their Muslim beliefs. It was a politically charged time for sure, but the candidate’s viciousness drew widespread bipartisan condemnation.
A month into office, when a raid in Yemen that President Trump had green lit resulted in the death of Senior Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, he did little better. Pressed for an explanation during a Fox News interview, he passed the buck to his generals and insisted, “They lost Ryan.” The episode was forgotten when Trump praised Owens’ sacrifice in his address to Congress; he was glad to own the applause, but not the responsibility.
And it continues even now. In reporting this week, the Washington Post discovered that President Trump had personally promised a $25,000 check to a fallen soldier’s father this summer — but then never followed through. The check is only now in the mail because of a reporter’s persistent questions, reminiscent of so many other mysteriously absent fulfillments of Trump-promised charity.
Any but the most self-serious political writer takes small glee in the gaffes of those whose agendas they oppose. Conservatives loved to mock what they saw as President Obama’s pretentiousness; liberals, likewise, took every verbal slip-up as evidence of President Bush’s lack of intelligence. But this isn’t that.
There is no joy in highlighting a commander-in-chief’s repeated failure to hold sacred and above politics the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform.
From insulting Senator McCain (“I like people who weren’t captured”) to claiming that avoiding STDs while dating was his “personal Vietnam,” so many of President Trump’s statements about the military have lacked an empathy and respect that are practically a prerequisite to being American, let alone the leader of our armed forces.
Sadly, this feud will likely only get uglier before it blows over. More families going through the profound grief of losing a loved one will be dragged into the political spotlight, pressed to defend or denounce the president’s obtuseness. It’s a sad spectacle that no one can relish — no one, save for a man whose highest purpose seems to be bringing any and all attention upon himself.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at firstname.lastname@example.org.