When Tragedy Becomes Farce
A crowd gathered on a runway at Miami International Airport shortly before the plane carrying Sgt. La David Johnson landed. The solemn crowd stood silently as the plane’s cargo door opened and airport employees approached. Representative Frederica Wilson was with Sgt. Johnson’s close family and clergy. Uniformed law enforcement stood several paces behind. The silence was briefly broken by Sgt. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, when she exclaimed in grief at the sight of her late husband’s casket exiting the plane. Seven military personnel carried the casket from the plane to a nearby stand and placed it with dignity—a practice that, unfortunately, was well rehearsed. Arm-in-arm, another military official led Johnson to her late husband’s body. She bent over the casket, and sobbed. She was six months pregnant with their third child.
Three similar scenes played out across the nation as the three other soldiers killed by Islamic State fighters in Niger were returned to their families—Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright.
Only days later, Myeshia Johnson was thrust into the center of a partisan proxy war. Television-hungry personalities and purveyors of feigned outrage came out of the woodwork to resume their original programming of partisan venom—leaving no room for grieving or dignity. Johnson’s grief became front page cannon fodder for both political sides, and she soon became the target of the president himself.
During a press conference almost two weeks after the attack in Niger that left four soldiers dead, a reporter asked the president, “why haven’t we heard anything from you, so far, about the soldiers that were killed in Niger?”
“I will, at some point during the period of time, call the parents and families, because I have done that traditionally,” Trump responded. “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls.”
This is, of course, a slanderous lie.
Obama called and consoled many families of fallen soldiers. As did almost every president before him. A president saying otherwise is a shameful lie that disgraces the office of Commander in Chief. It also disgraces the families of each and every fallen soldier who were consoled by a president prior to Trump’s inauguration. It’s an enormously egregious slander that nears the top of the list of Trump’s undignified statements while in office.
However, this scandal was quickly covered by another.
Trump did eventually call the families of these four fallen soldiers. Myeshia Johnson and the congresswoman were reportedly sitting in a car with the phone on speaker when Trump called. Later, Wilson went on television to criticize the president’s actions during the phone call. According to Wilson, Trump told the grieving widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for.” Wilson also claimed that Trump was insensitive during the phone call and could not even remember Sgt. Johnson’s name. Johnson was crying after the call, according to Wilson's account.
Whether or not Johnson consented to divulging her phone call on television, it was incredibly unwise for Rep. Wilson to do so. This became immediately clear.
The president punched back. On Twitter, Trump stated that Wilson’s description of the phone call was “totally fabricated.” He later called the description a “total lie” and asserted that Wilson had secretly listened in on the phone call. A partisan storm broke out and pundits and politicians on all sides got involved with the controversy.
All eyes were now, unfortunately, on the Johnson family.
Sgt. Johnson’s mother felt forced to respond publicly. “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” she admitted to the Washington Post.
Rep. Wilson’s foremost priority should have been the Johnson family's privacy during this time of grief.
Trump is no enigma. His response to Wilson’s words was predictable. Wilson should have known that her disclosure would propel a grieving widow into the national spotlight and paint a target on her back. So why do it? Although the decision was obviously beneficial to her political standing, there is no evidence to suggest malice on Wilson’s part. After all, Wilson was a close personal friend to the Johnson Family. However the intent, Wilson should have known better. So often now the default setting in our political atmosphere is public outrage and tribalism. Wilson should have extinguished those urges. The representative’s disclosure did nothing to help Johnson grieve, and it only made life for the pregnant mother more difficult.
Eventually, the president’s Chief of Staff John Kelly was dispatched to the White House press briefing to do damage control and defend the president’s remarks. Simply apologizing and moving forward was, apparently, still out of the question. Kelly insisted he had advised President Trump himself to tell Sgt. Johnson’s widow that “he knew what he was getting into by joining.” Of course, this directly contradicts Trump’s assertion that he never said such thing, and that Rep. Wilson was lying. Will Trump now call his Chief of Staff a liar?
In a moment of potent irony, Kelly then attacked those on the other side who dishonor women and politicize the families of fallen soldiers. “You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country," he said. “Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore.” At least sixteen women have publicly accused Trump of sexual harassment. Trump himself even admitted to grabbing women “by the pussy.”
Kelly then asserted that the sanctity of gold star families was gone. “I think that left in the convention over the summer.” He is, of course, speaking about Khizr Khan's speech at the Democratic National Convention. According to Kelly, a private citizen who lost his son in battle choosing to speak at the DNC destroyed the sanctity of gold star families. It apparently wasn’t destroyed when Trump insisted that no president before him had called gold star families, or when Trump started a twitter war with a congresswoman and the widow of a fallen soldier, or even earlier when Trump insulted and slandered Khizr Khan and his wife.
Finally, Kelly attacked Rep. Wilson. Unlike Trump, Kelly did not dispute Wilson’s description of the phone call. However, he did criticize her for making it public. This criticism is probably warranted; however, Kelly goes even further. He then slandered the representative. In order to discredit Wilson, Kelly claimed that she is an “empty barrel” who once bragged about fundraising during her speech in 2015 honoring two fallen FBI agents. Therefore, according to Kelly, he had a history of this kind of politicization. This turned out to be a complete lie. Video later surfaced of her entire speech from 2015. Wilson made no such comments regarding fundraising.
Eventually, Myeshia Johnson was forced to go public. A political farce was surging through the nation, launched initially by her husband’s tragic death. But no one was discussing the fatal mission in Niger. Instead, all controversy surrounded the widow and her phone call. She had already been dragged into the front page. That ship had sailed, she might as well set the record straight.
Johnson broke her public silence on Good Morning America on October 23rd. She recounted the details of the phone call with Trump. The call was put on speaker so that Johnson’s family and close friends—including Wilson—could hear. She said that Trump was insensitive and could not remember her husband’s name. According to Johnson, Trump was "stumbling on my husband's name. That’s what hurt me most. He's out there fighting for our country, why can't you remember his name?” Johnson also verified Wilson’s public comments. "Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not fabricated," Johnson asserted.”What she said was 100 percent correct. Why would we fabricate something like that?”
The phone call was very upsetting to Johnson. “It made me cry even worse,” she said.
After her interview on Good Morning America, Johnson became an even larger target.
Instead of simply apologizing and moving forward with dignity, President Trump chose to publicly call Johnson a liar. “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!” he stated on Twitter. Trump then said that he could not have forgotten Sgt. Johnson's name because it was printed out on a chart in front of him during the call.
Right-wing personalities were quick to desecrate her and her story in defense of the president. On Twitter, former Congressman Joe Walsh stated, “Shame on her. Now she should be attacked”
This has become a farce, and it's still not over.
Four American soldiers died during a firefight in Niger. Four families laid their loved ones in the ground, and yet their nation is conducting political theater.
It is foolish to expect dignity or grace from our president. But what about the rest of us? Will we all step up do what the president will not? Or will we stand aside while the last bit of dignified American life is transformed into a partisan game?
This week, the American people chose to turn a tragedy into a farce.
What a shame.
Brandon Clarkson is the Editor in Chief of Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.