The Memo: Gold Star controversy consumes White House

Greg Nash

President Trump found himself in a growing maelstrom Wednesday as military families came forward to criticize how he treated them after their relatives were killed in action.

Trump lit the spark on the dispute on Monday when he claimed, incorrectly, that President Obama had not made calls to Gold Star families. Since then, that spark has become a raging blaze consuming everything else on the political stage.

Allies of the president are expressing weary frustration at yet another distracting controversy. 

“The more the president focuses on this the worse it’s getting, because one story is now turning into a Pandora’s box of families with negative Trump stories,” lamented one GOP strategist with ties to the White House.

The furor dominated cable news coverage on Wednesday and forced White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders onto the defensive at the daily media briefing.

Reporters uncovered new avenues to the story throughout the day.

The Washington Post interviewed the father of an army sergeant killed in Afghanistan who said Trump had promised to write him a $25,000 check from his personal account, but had not followed through. 

The White House said a check had been sent and criticized the media.

The wife of an army sergeant also killed in Afghanistan told CNN that she had been told to wait by her phone for a call from the president. The call never came, she said.

The Post reported that it had made contact with 13 Gold Star families. Trump had called about half of them.

The growing storm came at the end of a day that began with the president defending himself against the charge that he had insulted the family of a Green Beret killed in Niger.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said she was in a car with the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, a 25-year-old Green Beret killed on Oct. 4, when Trump called.

According to Wilson, Trump told Johnson’s grieving widow that her late husband “must’ve known what he signed up for … but when it happens it hurts anyway.”
Wilson also told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, felt that Trump had not even been able to recall her late husband’s name. 

Trump hit back on Twitter on Wednesday morning. 

“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!” he wrote.

The tweet added new fuel to the controversy. The deceased soldier’s mother told both The Washington Post and The Associated Press that Wilson’s account of the call was accurate. Cowanda Jones-Johnson said that she felt her family had been shown “disrespect” by the president.

Sanders, during the press briefing, insisted that the controversy was being ramped up by Democrats and amplified by the media. She called Wilson’s conduct “appalling,” asserting that the congresswoman had “politicized this issue.”

Referring to the negative portrayals of the call, Sanders asserted that it was “a disgrace of the media to try to portray an act of kindness like that, and that gesture, and to try to make it into something that it isn’t.”

Sanders said that there were no recordings of the call but that White House chief of staff John Kelly — a retired Marine general whose son was killed in action — had been present and “thought it was completely appropriate.” 

This week’s furor is far from the first Trump controversy involving the military. 

As a candidate for the GOP nomination, Trump said in July 2015, “I like people who weren’t captured.” That was a reference to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was held as a POW for more than five years during the Vietnam War.

Trump also tangled with Khizr Khan, the father of an Army captain killed near Baghdad in 2004. Khan had given a dramatic speech against Trump at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

But those controversies did not noticeably handicap Trump when it came to November’s election. 

According to exit polls, he received the support of 60 percent of veterans at the polls, compared to just 34 percent who voted for his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

His 26-percent margin was far greater than the 10-point advantage McCain enjoyed among veterans against Obama in 2008.

But some independent experts say the current furor could be different.

Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, argued that the previous military-related controversies came with figures who had voluntarily entered the political arena: McCain is a sitting senator, and Khan was not known on the national stage until his convention speech. 

The Johnson family, and the other families coming forward, are not political figures, Reeher noted.

More broadly, he said Trump’s words were “pushing that frontier of just what is acceptable on the part of a president. I think that’s why it is getting the attention that it’s getting. Any time you start talking fast and loose about … families that have lost members in the line of duty, that is political dynamite.”

The firestorm is yet another distraction from the president’s agenda. 

His original remarks about Obama came at a hastily arranged Rose Garden news conference, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) standing alongside the president.

The event was intended to show unity between Trump and McConnell, who have had a volatile relationship, and to prepare the ground for an all-out push on tax reform.

The GOP strategist with White House ties told The Hill on Wednesday, “Time to get back to tax reform.”

There seems no chance of that happening right now.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Donald Trump Frederica Wilson Hillary Clinton John Kelly John McCain Mitch McConnell

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