WASHINGTON — In a sharp escalation of events, President Donald Trump on Wednesday accused a Florida congresswoman of fabricating a story that he told the widow of a fallen soldier her husband “knew what he signed up for.”
But the lawmaker and the soldier’s family stood by the account and said Trump showed disrespect.
The body of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson, one of four people to die in an ambush in Niger earlier this month, was flown to Miami on Tuesday and his pregnant widow, wearing a purple dress with a flower print, wept over the flag-draped coffin, a child at her side.
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson said she was in the car when Trump called Myeshia Johnson and that he made those remarks while adding, “but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”
As controversy built, Trump went on Twitter Wednesday morning. “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!” he wrote.
Later at the White House, he repeated that charge.
“I didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all, she knows it,” Trump told reporters, challenging Wilson to say it again. The president said, “I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.”
Wilson and Johnson’s mother insisted their account was accurate. “Yes, the statement is true,” Cowanda Jones-Johnson said. “I was in the car and I heard the full conversation.”
Trump, she told the Associated Press, showed “disrespect.”
At the same time, the father of another soldier killed in Niger told CBS News that his call with Trump was “real cordial” and that it went well.
“He offered his condolences,” said Arnold Wright, father of Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, adding he told the president that troops need air support.
The feud, overshadowing the loss of life and distracting from a busy White House agenda, came as Trump faced criticism for his lack of outreach to the families of the four soldiers killed in the Niger attack on Oct. 4, and for a lack of information about the ambush.
The Defense Department has launched an investigation into what happened.
On Monday, in response to a reporter’s question about why he had not commented on the four soldiers, Trump said he was sending letters and asserted President Barack Obama and other presidents had not called Gold Star families — a remark Obama’s allies blasted as an “outrageous and disrespectful lie.”
Wilson, 74, is a former state legislator and began serving in Congress in 2011. She’s often seen wearing signature large, colorful, sparkle-covered hats. “I have no motive,” she said on CNN, a day after first describing the phone call to reporters in Florida.
“The president evidently is lying, because what I said is true,” Wilson said. “I have no reason to lie on the president of the United States with a dead soldier in my community.”
She said she didn’t know what “proof” Trump had but, “I’m not the only person that was in the car. And I have proof too. This man is a sick man. He’s cold-hearted and he feels no pity or sympathy for anyone.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said there were no recordings of the call — and she declined to offer a version of what was said — but noted others were in the room when Trump called, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, a Marine general who served under Obama.
She said the president was “completely respectful, very sympathetic and expressed the condolences of himself and the rest of the country” and thanked the family for having an “American hero.”
Sanders then accused Wilson of politicizing the events.
“This was a president who loves our country very much, who has the greatest level of respect for men and women in the uniform, and wanted to call and offer condolences to the family. And I think to try to create something from that — that the congresswoman is doing is, frankly, appalling and disgusting.”
The White House faced its own questions of politicizing military deaths. Trump on Tuesday suggested a Fox News Radio host ask Gen. Kelly if Obama called him after his son was killed in Afghanistan.
During the campaign, Trump fought with the Gold Star family of an Army captain, Humayun Khan, who died in Iraq in 2004. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Trump had offered the grieving father of a solider $25,000 but never followed through. The White House said Wednesday “the check has been sent” and accused the paper of trying to advance an agenda.
Wilson said the focus should be on Johnson, who was part of a mentoring program for boys of color and died providing assistance to West African forces battling “vicious insurgents like Boko Haram.”
“The Johnson family and the families of the three other soldiers who tragically lost their lives in the Niger ambush are experiencing what I am certain must feel like an unbearable loss,” Wilson said. “Rather than engage in a petty war of words with Mr. Trump, it is so much more important to embrace and support the families and honor these fallen heroes.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.