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Trump’s response to the Niger ambush: A news cycle lacking decency

12 days of silence. Eight days (and counting) of presidential politicizing. Zero days of encouragement in a time of tragedy.

Staff Sgt. Bryan Black.

Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson.

Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright.

Sgt. La David Johnson.

Graphic: CBS News

On October 4, 2017, these four American soldiers were killed during an ambush by ISIS fighters in the African country of Niger.

Two more U.S. servicemen were injured in the ambush; five Nigerien soldiers lost their lives.

The following day, October 5, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke about the ambush for roughly 38 seconds at the White House podium.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the fallen service members who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of the freedoms we hold so dear,” she said.

At the time of her comment, it was believed that three U.S. soldiers died in the attack.

On October 6, the body of Sgt. La David Johnson — who had been missing since the ambush — was recovered by Nigerien soldiers.

As of Monday evening, it is still not clear how Johnson had gotten separated from his team.

Monday, October 16

The statement by Sanders on October 5 was the only public acknowledgment of the ambush by the White House — besides an answer by Sanders to a question about it in a press briefing on October 6 — until Monday, October 16.

By my count, President Trump tweeted 95 times between October 5 and October 15 about a variety of things — the massacre in Las Vegas, various cries of ‘Fake News,’ North Korea, FEMA, Senator Bob Corker, ESPN’s Jemele Hill, the ongoing anthem protests in the NFL, the stock market, tax reform, retweeting Bill O’Reilly twice, and more — but no tweet mentioned Niger.

On October 16, the country heard President Trump’s first public remarks about the ambush only when he was asked about his silence by CNN’s Sara Murray during a press conference in the Rose Garden.

“Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” she asked.

The President responded by saying he had written letters that were being sent out to the families of the four fallen soldiers and he would be calling them “at some point.”

But before moving onto the next question, Trump falsely stated that “President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.”

Later on in the news conference, Trump then revised his statement about Obama when asked about it again: “President Obama, I think probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told.”

Tuesday, October 17

The next day, the President told Fox News that “there’s nothing to clarify” about his false statement about President Obama made from the Rose Garden because “it was again fake news CNN [that asked the question about Niger]. I mean, they’re just a bunch of fakers.”

Trump also said, “To the best of my knowledge, I think I’ve called every family of somebody that’s died [during his presidency].”

In this same interview with Fox, Trump also unexpectedly brought up White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly.

Kelly’s son Robert, a Marine 1st Lieutenant, died in Afghanistan in 2010.

If you follow politics, you know General Kelly rarely speaks publicly about his son’s death, especially in a political environment.

“I mean, you could ask General Kelly — did he get a call from Obama? You could ask other people, I don’t know what Obama’s policy was. I write letters and I also call,” Trump said.

Sgt. La David Johnson’s body returned to his home state of Florida on Tuesday, October 17.

As the plane approached Miami International Airport, Myeshia Johnson — La David’s pregnant widow whose third child is expected in January — received a phone call from Trump.

Shortly after heartbreaking images of Myeshia and her family receiving La David’s casket were shared across the country, a local news station reported that Trump had told Myeshia that La David “knew what he signed up for…but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”

This quote came from Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who had been riding in the car with Myeshia on the way to the airport when Trump called.

Wilson — a Democrat who had known La David for years because he went through a mentorship program she founded — said Myeshia had put the call on speakerphone, allowing everyone in the vehicle to listen in.

In a phone interview with CNN later that night, Wilson said she couldn’t believe Trump could be “so insensitive” in a call with a newly-widowed mother.

Wednesday, October 18

With Wilson’s recounting of the phone call making headlines, Trump sent out a tweet on the morning of Wednesday, October 18 claiming, “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”

Trump didn’t mention Niger or La David Johnson by name, but this was his first tweet that mentioned anything about the ambush — two weeks after it happened.

That same day, Trump tweeted three times about NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. One of his tweets read, “Total disrespect for our great country!”

He also tweeted three times about Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.

Later that Wednesday, The Washington Post published a story quoting La David’s aunt who had raised him as saying, “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband” with what he said during the phone call on Tuesday.

The aunt also said she stood by Congresswoman Wilson’s account.

When asked again about the phone call on Wednesday, Trump told reporters, “I didn’t say what that congresswoman said; didn’t say it at all. She knows it…I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who was — sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren’t too surprised to hear that.”

Also on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that it had “identified at least a half-dozen Gold Star families who were not called by Trump as he had claimed and reported that Trump had promised one grieving father $25,000 in June but had never sent a check; the White House said it was sent this week after The Post asked about the case.”

Thursday, October 19

On Thursday, White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly made a surprise appearance in the press briefing room.

The retired four-star Marine general “said he was ‘stunned,’ ‘appalled’ and ‘brokenhearted’ to learn Wednesday morning that Wilson had criticized Trump’s tone and choice of words in media interviews.”

Kelly said Trump had told Johnson’s widow that “he knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist. He enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.”

The White House chief of staff also talked about his son’s death in Afghanistan and the process of bringing a fallen soldier’s body home.

But before he finished, Kelly also made false claims about Congresswoman Wilson.

He stated that Wilson had focused on the fact that she “got the money” for an FBI building in Florida that was dedicated and named for two slain FBI agents in 2015.

Kelly had attended the dedication ceremony, along with Wilson.

But the South Florida Sun Sentinel published video of Wilson’s speech at the event that shows she did not claim she got the new building funded; she only took “credit for securing approval of the name of the building just days before the dedication for two slain FBI agents.”

On Thursday evening, President Trump tweeted, “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”

(As mentioned above, Johnson’s family allowed Wilson to listen in on the call; and they confirmed her account of it.)

Friday, October 20

Despite video evidence showing General Kelly had misstated Wilson’s remarks at the 2015 FBI building dedication, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted during a press briefing on Friday that questioning Kelly was wrong.

“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate,” Sanders said.

She also said Kelly “absolutely” stands by his remarks that Wilson grandstanded during the building dedication, despite video evidence proving otherwise.

Also on Friday, Roll Call published a report stating President Trump’s claim in that October 17 interview with Fox that he believed he had “called every family of somebody that’s died [during his presidency]” was not true.

According to Roll Call, an email exchange it obtained “shows that senior White House aides were aware on the day the president made the statement that it was not accurate — but that they should try to make it accurate as soon as possible, given the gathering controversy.”

The report says “the White House was hustling to learn from the Pentagon the identities and contact information for those families.”

Saturday, October 21

On Saturday morning, President Trump again tweeted about Wilson saying, “I hope the Fake News Media keeps talking about Wacky Congresswoman Wilson in that she, as a representative, is killing the Democrat Party!”

Despite his earlier claim that he had evidence to prove Wilson’s account of the phone call — that Johnson’s family stood by — was “a total lie,” the President offered no proof of that claim on Saturday.

He also still had not tweeted about Sgt. La David Johnson or the Niger ambush by name.

Later that day, Trump quoted a supporter’s tweet that showed a photo of Wilson with President Obama. The caption above the photo, and in a previous tweet linked to it, stated Democrats “are focusing on [Wilson] as a distraction from all your success and the massive Russian uranium bribery scandal facing team Obama and Hillary Clinton. So they rolled out their last hope, Federica [sic] Wilson.”

The President quoted the tweet and said, “People get what is going on!”

Sunday, October 22

On Sunday morning, President Trump continued tweeting about Wilson.

“Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party, a disaster for Dems,” he wrote. “You watch her in action & vote R!”


Monday, October 23

On Monday morning, Myeshia Johnson appeared on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America.’

In an interview, she confirmed Congresswoman Wilson’s account.

“The President, said that he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway. And it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said — he couldn’t remember my husband’s name. The only way he remembered my husband’s name is because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him and that’s when he actually said La David. 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 said that, “Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not fabricated. What she said was 100 percent correct…why would we fabricate something like that?”

Shortly after Myeshia’s interview aired, President Trump tweeted, “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation.”

As of Monday evening, it is the first and only time Trump has said or tweeted La David’s name.

The tweets

I reviewed President Trump’s Twitter feed from October 5 through today, October 23.

By my count, the President tweeted 168 times.

For comparisons sake:

1 tweet about Sgt. La David Johnson (and it was to dispute his widow’s interview)

5 tweets about Representative Frederica Wilson

8 tweets about Hillary Clinton

9 tweets about the national anthem protests in the NFL

13 tweets about Fox News (promoting interviews shot with them or commending their coverage)

21 tweets about “Fake News”

Sgt. La David Johnson

Sgt. La David Johnson was laid to rest on Saturday, October 21 during a private funeral in Florida.

Myeshia is set to give birth to her and La David’s third child on January 29.

“I’m gonna tell her how awesome her dad was and how — a great father he was and how he died as a hero,” she said on ‘Good Morning America.’

Questions that remain

How did Sgt. Johnson get separated from his team? How did he remain missing for nearly two days?

Did the team of US soldiers engage in a mission they were not prepared to before the ambush occurred?

Why did President Trump stay silent about the ambush for 12 days?

Why did President Trump so willingly tweet about everything but the Niger ambush for those 12 days?

What is President Trump gaining by continuing this back and forth with a Gold Star family?

How is any of this helping the families of the four soldiers who lost their lives in Niger?

Why does President Trump continue engaging in battles with those who fight for our country? (Saying John McCain isn’t a war hero because he got captured; fighting with the Khan family after their DNC speech; now this.)

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