Renée Graham

Spreading Trump Salt in every wound

Army Sergeant La David T. Johnson, who was killed on Oct. 4 in southwest Niger. President Trump reportedly told Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, that “he knew what he was signing up for.”
Army Sergeant La David T. Johnson, who was killed on Oct. 4 in southwest Niger. President Trump reportedly told Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, that “he knew what he was signing up for.” Department of Defense/AFP/Getty Images

In his lifetime, the greatest sacrifice Donald Trump has likely made is missing his daily tee time, and only since he became president. That may explain why the man has no empathy for others.

To borrow a Russian joke — one likely familiar to Trump’s former campaign manager Vladimir Putin — “We thought we had hit rock bottom, then someone knocked from below.” Every time we think Trump has gone as low as he can go, there he is again tweeting beneath our startled feet.

In his latest imbroglio, Trump is botching one of the most sacred rituals of the presidency: comforting a family that has lost a relative in the military. First he waited 12 days to say anything about the deaths of four American soldiers ambushed Oct. 4 during a mission in Niger. Then he falsely claimed his predecessors, especially President Obama, never or rarely called the families of service members killed in duty.

Now he’s squabbling with Florida congresswoman Frederica Wilson and, by extension, the grieving wife and mother of Sergeant La David Johnson, who died in Niger. Trump couldn’t get through a minutes-long condolence call without behaving in a manner the women found disrespectful. He is alleged to have said to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” and only referred to the dead Green Beret as “your guy,” as if he didn’t know the soldier’s name.


Wilson and Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, listened to the call on speakerphone. At first Trump tweeted that he could prove Wilson’s version of events was “fabricated.” (He hasn’t.) Now he’s accusing Wilson of politicizing the call to Johnson’s wife.

Without question, Johnson and his fellow Green Berets understood the risks of their service to this country. Yet it’s not what one should say, or in such a harsh way, to a woman who was on her way to meet the flag-draped casket of her dead husband.


These are the actions of a man devoid of empathy. As Gold Star father Khizr Khan memorably said during last year’s Democratic National Convention, Trump has “sacrificed nothing and no one.” His pathological narcissism renders him incapable of mustering even a scintilla of compassion for anyone other than himself – well, maybe his children. And even then, some clearly moreso than others.

He mocked disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski; he attacked the Khan family, whose son, an army captain, was killed in Iraq; he inexplicably tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd of Puerto Ricans desperate for food, water, and electricity after Hurricane Maria. This president embodies the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion – he lacks a brain, a heart, and the courage to say or do the right thing every single time.

As a Republican nominee Trump was asked by George Stephanopoulos what sacrifices he’s made for this country, Trump claimed he’d “made a lot of sacrifices,” and then talked about his “tremendous success.” Stephanopoulos again gave Trump a second shot at a relevant answer, and Trump came back with yet another self-congratulatory response.

As when he fought with the Khans, he is now scrapping with the Johnsons, because he would rather fight than admit he made a mistake. To apologize would puncture his sense of infallibility, though he never hesitates to demand that others make amends when he believes he has been wronged. It follows the pattern of an unlovable man who demands, but is incapable of, unconditional love.


Since Trump became president, we’ve endured devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands, a mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 people dead and hundreds injured, and wildfires devouring lives and communities in California. Trump didn’t cause any of them, but he has done nothing to soothe a overwhelmed country or, now, a grieving military family. Even at our most jaded, we still expect our leaders’ words and actions to serve as a salve in times of national distress. Instead we have Trump salting every wound.

I chastised Trump for days on social media for his silence on the military deaths in Niger. Now I wish he'd kept his mouth shut.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham