It’s long past time for President Trump to stop the pettiness and use his power as commander in chief to put the focus where it belongs: On four US soldiers who were killed in Niger on Oct. 4 during a mission that went terribly wrong.
During last week’s dramatic press conference, John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, and the father of a Marine killed in Afghanistan, said he was stunned by a lawmaker’s criticism of the president’s call to the family of one of those soldiers. It was a sign, said Kelly, that nothing today is sacred. If so, Trump has a lot to do with that. He does the unthinkable — taking on a grieving spouse or parent and making the tragedy of their loved one’s death all about him, not the soldier.
It took Trump 12 days to address the military deaths in Niger. When he did, he falsely stated that presidents who preceded him did not contact the families of American troops killed in service to the country. Those remarks ultimately led US Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida to criticize the words Trump reportedly used in a call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of the four slain soldiers. Before making the call, Trump was coached by Kelly, who has undisputed standing as a Gold Star father. But even if we give the president the benefit of the doubt, and agree that he was trying to say the right words, when there are no right words, the finger-pointing needs to end and the soul-searching needs to accelerate.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has launched an investigation, and NBC reports that the Pentagon’s Africa Command has sent a team to Niger to conduct “a review of the facts.” But already there are questions about the Trump administration’s commitment to transparency. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he’s dissatisfied with the information available so far and is threatening to seek a subpoena to get more details about the attack.
Among the questions: why Johnson’s body was not recovered until two days after the attack. His widow told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the government has given her no details about the circumstances of his death nor told her why she couldn’t see her husband’s body. Myeshia Johnson also confirmed the account of Trump’s phone call, first given by Wilson, who is also a family friend. Via Twitter, Trump essentially accused Johnson of lying, just as he accused Wilson.
Wilson has called the Niger attack “Trump’s Benghazi,” a reference to the terror attack on a US diplomatic compound in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, that ended with the deaths of four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Her bitterness toward Trump is understandable. But the country doesn’t need a repeat of the partisan poison associated with that tragedy. Republicans were quick to politicize the attack, convening congressional hearings to undermine Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state when the attack occurred. No evidence of wrongdoing or cover-up was ever discovered. But Republicans still use Benghazi to question the competency and honesty of the Obama administration.
McCain is right. An honest assessment of what happened is needed, one that honors the dead and could save other lives. That should be Trump’s goal, rather than making a crass political calculation that centers on phone calls, letters, and tweets.