“He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.”
These were the words that the president of United States used to console Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was among four American soldiers killed earlier this month in Niger. Johnson was 25, the father of two children with a third on the way.
According to Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida, who was with Johnson and overheard part of the conversation with the president, Trump also kept referring to Sgt. Johnson as “your guy.” As Myeshia Johnson said when she hung up the phone, in tears, “he didn’t even know his name.”
When confronted by the media firestorm over his unimaginably insensitive conduct, Trump did what he always does — he lied and he deflected responsibility, tweeting out:
Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
Others who were with Johnson when the president called backed up the congresswoman’s story. Considering that earlier this week Trump defended his failure to call the families of soldiers killed in action by falsely and slanderously suggesting that President Obama didn’t make such calls, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would believe anything Trump says on this subject.
Liars lie, and if there is one thing we know about Trump, it’s that he is a liar.
On the one level, this story is yet one more example of the empty shell of a person who is America’s president. Trump is a man devoid of decency, compassion, and empathy. He is incapable of even masking the basic human emotions that for so many of us come naturally. But there is something about this story that is so viscerally enraging, particularly in the way it speaks to Trump’s ugly, transactional world view.
It’s the words that Trump used, “he knew what he was signing up for.”
Soldiers, of course, do not sign up for the military to die in combat. It’s surely true that many enter the military for adventure or opportunity and are cognizant of the risks in doing so. But at the core of volunteering for military service is a sense of duty, responsibility, patriotism, and giving one’s life a higher purpose or calling. In the field of battle, military service translates into something else — a commitment to your unit, your buddies, your mission.
These ideals are, of course, completely alien to Donald Trump. For him, every single human interaction is transactional — “what am I getting out of this?”
This is a man who described his efforts to avoid sexually transmitted diseases while single as his own personal Vietnam. This is a man who goes to enormous lengths to avoid paying taxes and who doesn’t volunteer or give to charity, even though he is fabulously wealthy. The idea of giving back to one’s country or community, of acting selflessly or of subsuming one’s ego for a greater good, does not compute. His is a world in which the answer to every challenge is “what’s in it for me?”
For Trump, Sgt. La David Johnson isn’t a hero. He’s a sucker.
I doubt Trump intentionally attempted to act insensitively toward Myeshia Johnson. He simply doesn’t know how to act sensitively.
But of course, this isn’t about Trump the man. It’s about Trump the president.
When the president makes condolence calls to family members of soldiers who have given their last full measure of devotion, he’s speaking not for himself, but on behalf of all Americans. The president’s words are not a magic elixir. They do not wash away the anguish and pain of Myeshia Johnson’s unimaginable sorrow or fill the void left by her husband’s death. But what they can do is, in some small way, give meaning and purpose to loss. They can provide solace and comfort in moments of extraordinary grief. That’s all you can ask of any president in these situations, but as we learned this week, even this is a bridge too far for Trump.
A president unable to locate the bare, minimally appropriate words to comfort the widow of a dead American soldier is more than evidence of a personal failure — it is a national failure. We are all implicated in Donald Trump’s inhumanity.
Trump is a broken man, but every day that he occupies the White House, he brings us all down with him.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.