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Trump’s call to a fallen soldier’s widow will derail him — again

After being criticized for not calling family members of four slain American military members ambushed in Africa earlier in the month, President Trump began making calls on Tuesday.
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After being criticized for not calling family members of four slain American military members ambushed in Africa earlier in the month, President Trump began making calls on Tuesday.

The White House has a lot going on these days. There is an intense Russia investigation, a looming decision for federal reserve chief, and the uncertain future of tax reform and of the health care law. The he-said-she-said controversy about what President Trump allegedly told the pregnant wife of a recently killed American service member might appear as a small tidbit of news.

But it matters a lot. This controversy could derail part of his legislative agenda as well as undercut his campaign against the NFL over charges of patriotism.

After being criticized for not calling family members of four slain American military members ambushed in Africa earlier in the month, Trump began making calls on Tuesday. One of them was to a widow in Florida en route to meet her husband’s casket. A Democratic US Congresswoman who happened to know the family well was in the car. The widow happened to put the president’s call on speakerphone.

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Representative Frederica Wilson told reporters that she heard the president express his sympathies, but that he added “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.” Wilson said comment upset the widow, Myeshia Johnson.

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Trump went to Twitter and wrote that he said no such thing and that he could somehow prove it. Trump repeated this view to reporters on Wednesday.

But even as Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave testimony to the Senate largely about the Russia investigation, here’s why Trump’s alleged comments to Johnson won’t go away as a story or as a political problem.

1. The story undercuts Trump’s ongoing campaign against the NFL for disrespecting the military and veterans.

Players who have taken a knee during the singing of the national anthem have said they are not making a statement about veterans, but about systemic racism and police shootings involving people of color. Yet Trump successfully changed the national conversation to make it about patriotism. When the issue comes up again, maybe even this Sunday, opponents of Trump have a fresh example of how he maybe he isn’t the best person to discuss patriotism.

2. It ensures that the underlying story about Trump not quickly contacting the families of fallen service members continues.

Beyond serving in his role as commander in chief of the military and making condolence calls, the White House hoped that Trump finally making them weeks after the four soldiers were killed would put an end to the story. But now the story is front and center of American politics for at least a few more days.

3. This story feeds a narrative that Trump is not fully respectful of the American military he leads.

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On one level Trump has appeared enamored with the military ever since he left military boarding school. He says that he loves the movie “Patton” and that he has more generals serving in his administration than any other president.

At the same time, this is the third time he has said unpopular things to those who have sacrificed for the country. As a candidate, Trump mocked Senator John McCain’s experience as a prisoner of war, and he openly fought with the Khans, who lost a son while serving in Iraq. Now there is this comment, which prompted the mother of the slain soldier to say on Wednesday that Trump “did disrespect my son.”

4. Politically this story matters because it makes Republicans distance themselves when he needs them coming together

Trump has been on a Republican unity tour this week. He had Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to the White House to essentially make up for their past feud and to say they are working on the same team. He quickly came out to support a health care proposal from Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. He has golfed twice with Lindsey Graham. He even said that he would try to get his former adviser, Steve Bannon, to quit working to set up nasty Republican primaries.

The reason? Trump wants to pass a bunch of very hard bills by the end of the year. To do this he will need every Republican vote he can get. On Monday and Tuesday, Trump had been effective in getting Republican unity, but now Republicans will be forced to say how they disagree with him.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.