U.S. President Donald Trump engaged in a public feud Wednesday with a Democratic congresswoman over her claim that he told the widow of a U.S. serviceman killed in an ambush in Niger that “he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.”
In denying Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson’s account of a condolence telephone call, the President created a fresh political controversy over his response to the Niger attack and his willingness to inject politics into an issue that is typically regarded as sacred by past commanders in chief.
Wilson first made the stunning claim Tuesday night, saying she was present when the call took place. Sgt. La David Johnson was among the four U.S. soldiers killed by enemy fire in the Oct. 4 ambush.
She added on CNN’s “New Day” Wednesday morning that Trump didn’t know the name of the service member and that his widow “broke down” after her call with the President.
Cowanda Jones-Johnson, a family member who raised Johnson, told CNN Wednesday that Wilson’s account of the call between Trump and Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, was “very accurate.” She said she was in the car when the call happened.
Trump denied Wilson’s account in both a tweet and a statement made at the White House.
“I didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all,” Trump told reporters during a meeting on tax reform in the Cabinet Room. “She knows it. And she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said.”
Trump said he had a “very nice” conversation with Johnson’s widow, “who sounded like a lovely woman.” Referring to Wilson, he added: “I’d like her to make the statement again because I did not say what she said.”
Minutes later, Wilson responded on Twitter to Trump’s remarks, saying she still stood by her account. She then told CNN affiliate WPLG that “Mr. Trump is crazy,” hours after she told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that the President has a “brain disorder.”
Trump said he has proof Wilson fabricated her claim, but neither he nor the White House immediately provided any evidence. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday afternoon there was no recording of the call, saying Trump was referring to several people who were present in the room at the time.
Wilson on “New Day” described herself as “livid” when she heard the call on speakerphone, but when she tried to get on the phone to talk to Trump herself, a master sergeant who was present prevented her from doing so.
Per military protocol, the calls from the commander in chief are solely presidential condolence conversations.
Wilson said she was ready to “curse him out” had she had the chance to get on the line.
However, the Florida Democrat said she wouldn’t get into the specifics of what she would have said, adding that she didn’t want to “politicize” the incident.
It took Trump days to publicly discuss the attacks, and earlier this week, he falsely claimed that former President Barack Obama didn’t call families of fallen service members, later suggesting reporters contact his chief of staff, John Kelly, whose son was killed in Afghanistan, to ask if Obama reached out to him.
Johnson’s body was returned home to the Miami area late Tuesday afternoon, with the plane receiving a water cannon salute as it arrived near the gate.
The call from the President to Johnson’s widow came shortly before Johnson’s casket arrival, Wilson said on “CNN Tonight” Tuesday night.
“Basically, he said, ‘Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt,’ ” Wilson said to CNN’s Don Lemon.
“That’s what he said,” she added.
Asked earlier if she was sure the President said that, Wilson told CNN affiliate WPLG: “Yeah, he said that. You know … that is something that you can say in a conversation, but you shouldn’t say that to a grieving widow. Everyone knows when you go to war you could possibly not come back alive, but you don’t remind a grieving widow of that. That is so insensitive. So insensitive.”
A White House official said Tuesday: “The President’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private.”
Wilson told WPLG that she hoped the President didn’t make similar comments to the ones she heard to the other families of the soldiers killed.
“That is what stood out in everyone’s heart,” she said. “You don’t say that. He is the President of the United States. This is a soldier who gave his life for his country. He is a hero in our minds, in our community’s minds. That is an insult to the entire Miami Gardens community, to the entire District 24, to Miami-Dade County and to this nation. And I hope he didn’t say that to the other three families.”