Five reasons Trump's widow story stings

Anthony Zurcher
North America reporter
@awzurcheron Twitter

image copyrightCBS News/US Army
image captionSgt Johnson's widow with his coffin at Miami International Airport

The Donald Trump condolence-call story is a White House headache that shows no signs of abating.

It started badly for the president, as he responded to a question about US military casualties in Niger by questioning how his predecessors dealt with the families of war dead. It got worse, as the story morphed into one of an allegedly callous presidential call to Myeshia Johnson, a grieving widow of one of the US soldiers killed in Niger.

Now it's devolved into a he-said, she said debate, with Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson - who knew the slain soldier - and Ms Johnson and her family claiming the president mishandled the call, while Mr Trump and chief of staff John Kelly insist everything went smoothly.

Needless to say, arguing with a war widow is a no-win situation, regardless of who has facts on their side. President George W Bush notably withstood harsh criticism from some bereaved families during the Iraq War without swiping back.

This president is different, which should come as a surprise to no one at this point. His choices could come at a political high price, however. Here are five reasons why.

It cuts against a strength

Mr Trump campaigned on being a defender of the US military and, in particular, US veterans. Time and again he said those in the armed services weren't being treated well and railed against ongoing evidence of bureaucratic bungling in the veterans' health system.

As a candidate and as president, he has boasted of how much the military loves him and regularly surrounded himself with soldiers and martial symbolism - a way of burnishing his credentials as a strong commander-in-chief. He appointed ex-generals to his administration and lined his redecorated Oval Office with flags.

Now he has to deal with accusations that he is dishonouring the memory of service member who died on his watch. Questions are already swirling about why these soldiers were put in harm's way and whether enough was done to ensure their safety.

media captionCongresswoman Frederica Wilson: "How insensitive can you be?"

Reporters are digging into other contacts Mr Trump has had with the families of slain soldiers. One widow has released a recording of her call with the president.

According to The Atlantic, at least 11 of the 46 families had received neither a letter nor a call from the president. One father told the Washington Post Mr Trump had promised him a personal cheque for $25,000 (£18,900) but hadn't delivered. The White House has since announced the money is on the way.

Some families who have heard nothing said they were angry. The next time the president surrounds himself with soldiers, the public might be reminded of this - and become angry, too.

It re-enforces a weakness

An important job of a modern US president is to serve as "consoler-in-chief"; a stable, reassuring voice in times of national distress or tragedy. This can take place on a large scale - when visiting the site of a natural disaster or high-profile accident - or small, in comforting a family member grieving over their loss.

It's a skill that successful politicians learn early on - the human touch - and anti-politician Trump is having a difficult time with it.

In the days after Puerto Rico was struck by a massive hurricane, he was tweeting about the territory's pre-existing financial mismanagement and escalating a feud with San Juan's mayor.

media captionDonald Trump said Mrs Khan had nothing to say, as David Willis reports

In the hours after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville led to violent clashes and the death of a counter-protester, Mr Trump gave a statement about how there was blame on both sides.

Mr Trump responded to the militant attack on London Bridge by criticising the city's mayor. He's responded to other attacks, foreign and domestic, by claiming they vindicated his policy proscriptions.

The president has also developed a reputation for getting embroiled in petty disputes. His counter-puncher mentality, while it has served him well against his presidential rivals, also has led him into spats with a former beauty queen, celebrities, sports stars, major companies, prominent journalists, members of his own party and the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq.

That last one seems pretty relevant at this point.

It makes a bad story worse

It's worth remembering that this whole swirling story started because Mr Trump was asked why four US soldiers had died in Niger and why it took him so long to respond.

In fact, it had been 12 days and the president had issued no statement - tweet, comment or White House release - about the incident whatsoever.

Mr Trump defended himself by taking an (inaccurate) shot at his predecessors for not making similar calls. Although he later backed away from such a sweeping statement, the following day he told a reporter to ask his chief of staff, John Kelly if he had received a call from President Obama.

media captionTrump denigrates Obama over false fallen soldier claim

Mr Kelly's son had been killed in Afghanistan, and the ex-general has been reluctant to publicly discuss details of his grief.

The White House said he hadn't been called, but it was later revealed that he attended an event for Gold Star families - parents of slain soldiers - hosted by the Obama administration.

Then the president called Johnson's widow, and ... didn't help the situation.

Now he's in a war of words with a sharp-tongued Democratic congresswoman over a story that, however one slices it, does not paint the president in a good light.

When Mr Kelly defended the president later that week, he insisted the president handled a difficult call well - although he confirmed that Mr Trump did say the slain soldier "knew what he signed up for".

Since then, the president has seemingly enjoyed trading barbs with Congresswoman Wilson, calling her "wacky" and a "disaster" for Democrats.

When Ms Johnson insisted in a television interview that Ms Wilson's account was correct - and that the president didn't even know her husband's name - the president took to Twitter within hours to say she was incorrect.

Mr Trump once again has shown that he doesn't believe in the Law of Holes - that when you're in a hole, you stop digging. Instead he seems to think that if he keeps digging long enough, he'll come out on the other side.

It's evidence of a sloppy White House

This story could have been nipped in the bud early, with some sort of presidential statement of condolence shortly after the 4 October Niger incident.

In fact, according to Politico, a release had been drafted and circulated within the National Security Council on 5 October - but it never saw the light of day.

During Wednesday's White House press conference, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that there were administration protocols that had to be followed before the names of slain US servicemen could be released - but that wouldn't have applied to the draft statement responding to reports, which didn't mention the soldiers' names.

media captionGold Star Mother Christina Ayube: "We don't need to be reminded of that on the way to receiving the body"

"Somebody screwed up here, OK?" Leon Panetta, who served as defence secretary and CIA chief in the Obama administration, told The Washington Post. "You don't let that amount of time pass when our men and women in uniform have been killed."

Compounding matters was that it appears Mr Trump went into the conversation with Johnson's widow without a clear script. It's not outside the realm of possibility that while Mr Trump's intentions were good, his preparation was poor - and he misspoke or made comments open to misinterpretation.

Since Mr Trump first brought up his contacts with the Gold Star families, the White House has reportedly been scrambling to send out presidential letters of condolences to those who had not yet received them.

According to a leaked Pentagon document, the administration didn't even have a current list of slain military personnel when the president told reporters he had spoken with "virtually" all of them.

All of this could have been avoided with more careful planning.

It's a(nother) distraction

This is a big month for Mr Trump. If he wants to see Congress pass a tax cut before the end of the year, the coming weeks will be when it gets off the ground.

Democrats are pushing hard to paint the proposal as an unaffordable sop to the rich - and Republicans need to get their message out before public opinion is solidified.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionDonald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have a lot of work ahead of them this month

The president also took a high-risk gamble in ending cost-sharing subsidies that help insurance companies provide affordable policies to less affluent Americans. Without congressional action, some premiums could skyrocket. If Mr Trump isn't vigorous in defending his decision, he'll be the one that takes the brunt of the blame.

The federal budget process is heating up as well. Although the day of fiscal reckoning was pushed back to the end of December thanks to a deal with the Democrats, that deadline is growing closer every day. If the president wants to see funds for his priorities, like the Mexican border wall, he'll need to be fully engaged in congressional negotiations.

Speaking of negotiations, talks with Mexico and Canada to modify the North America Trade Agreement are hanging by a thread. If they fall apart, the president may have to make the case to the public that pulling out of the deal won't do lasting harm to the US economy.

All the oxygen in Washington is being sucked up by the condolence-call story, however.

Although Mr Trump likes to tout his presidential accomplishments, his record so far is bereft of legislative victories. Recent events have done little to help his cause.