The widow of Sgt La David Johnson, speaking publicly for the first time on Monday about a condolence call from Donald Trump that became a national controversy, said the conversation “made me cry even worse”.
She also said Trump forgot the name of her husband, one of four US soldiers killed in Niger this month. Trump countered that claim with a tweet, saying he “spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”
Trump was also the target of criticism this weekend from one of the country’s best-known military veterans, the Republican senator and Vietnam war hero John McCain.
Nineteen days after her husband was killed in action in west Africa, Myeshia Johnson told Good Morning America about the call she received from Trump.
“Very upset and hurt; it made me cry even worse,” she said.
The president told her in the call last week her husband “‘knew what he signed up for’”, she said, “but it hurts anyways. And it made me cry ’cause I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name.
“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?
“I didn’t say anything. I just listened.”
After the interview aired, Trump tweeted: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”
A Democratic representative, Frederica Wilson of Florida, said last week Trump told Johnson her husband “knew what he signed up for”. The president said that account of the call was “totally fabricated” but Wilson’s account was confirmed by Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who raised the soldier from the age of five after his mother died.
The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, in effect corroborated Wilson’s account at a press conference, sayinghe had advised Trump on how to make the call from his own experience, of being told his son Robert was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Kelly said his friend, Gen Joseph Dunford, told him his son “was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed”.
“He knew what the possibilities were, because we’re at war,” Kelly said. “That’s what the president tried to say to the four families the other day.”
Kelly also harshly criticized Wilson and misrepresented remarks she had made at a past speech on funding for a new government building in Florida. He did not acknowledge that the controversy erupted after Trump launched an unprompted attack on his predecessors Barack Obama and George W Bush, regarding their outreach to bereaved military families.
Trump was responding to a question about why he had not commented publicly about the Niger ambush when he made the unexpected swipe at the former presidents.
“If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls – a lot of them didn’t make calls,” he said.
The next day, Wilson spoke about the call with Johnson’s widow. On Monday, she confirmed the congresswoman’s account. “What she said was 100% correct,” Myeshia Johnson said.
Sgt Johnson was buried in Florida on Saturday, at a service attended by an estimated 1,000 people. Trump’s phone call dispute has revived concerns about the incident in which Johnson and three other Americans died, and five Nigerien soldiers were also killed, and about the presence of US troops in Niger.
Myeshia Johnson, who had known her husband since she was six, has two children and is expecting a third. She told ABC she was desperate to know more about her husband’s death. She said she was first told her husband had gone missing after a shooting incident. Two days later, she said, the military told her Sgt Johnson had died.
“I don’t know how he got killed, where he got killed or anything,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that part, they never told me and that’s what I’ve been trying to find out since day one.”
On Sunday, Wilson said the ambush was the equivalent of the deadly 2011 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, over which Republicans in Congress pursued Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state when the attack happened.
Trump has not offered any details about US policy in Niger or the fatal attack, ignoring questions shouted by reporters after a Rose Garden appearance with the prime minister of Singapore on Monday. Senators from both parties, McCain among them, have urged the White House to provide more information.
In an interview broadcast on Sunday night, McCain made a thinly veiled criticism of Trump on a military subject.
McCain spoke to C-Span 3’s American History TV, about Americans who avoided the draft for the Vietnam war. He did not mention Trump by name but he said: “One aspect of the conflict, by the way, that I will never, ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America and the highest income level found a doctor that would say they had a bone spur.
“That is wrong. That is wrong. If we are going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve.”
Trump received five deferments from service in Vietnam: four for academic reasons and one for bone spurs – buildups of calcium – in his heels.
McCain, a naval aviator, was captured by the North Vietnamese, held for five years and tortured. Perhaps the country’s best-known veteran, his political career was shaped by his military experience and he is a prominent voice on military and foreign policy issues.
McCain and Trump have sparred regularly. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump diminished McCain’s military experience.
“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured? I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said, at a campaign event in Iowa in July 2015.
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