President Donald Trump told the widow of a fallen U.S. soldier that her husband “knew what he signed up for,” according to a congresswoman who overheard the call.
La David Johnson, from Florida, was one of the four U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers who died in an ambush earlier this month in western Niger, where the U.S. is quietly supporting the local military in its fight against Islamic State-aligned forces.
Johnson’s body arrived at Miami International Airport on Tuesday, and his widow, Myeshia Johnson, went with their children to receive it. Shortly beforehand, Trump called her to express his condolences.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D–Florida) was with Johnson when she took the call on speakerphone. The representative afterwards recounted to members of the press that Trump told the widow: “He knew what he signed up for…but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”
“It’s so insensitive. He should have not have said that. He shouldn’t have said it,” Wilson said.
“The President’s conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private,” the White House subsequently said.
The incident came as Trump was taking heavy criticism for his claims in recent days that other presidents, including Barack Obama, did not call all the relatives of deceased soldiers.
On Monday, when asked why he had not commented on the soldiers’ deaths in the two weeks since they occurred, Trump told reporters: “If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.”
He subsequently said that he wasn’t speaking for other people. “I don’t know what Bush did. I don’t know what Obama did,” he said. But he also suggested that his chief of staff, John Kelly, had not received proper presidential condolences when his son, Robert Kelly, died in action in Afghanistan seven years ago.
“You could ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?” Trump asked.
Kelly himself has not commented, but plenty of others have. Former Obama aide Ben Rhodes tweeted that “this is an outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.”
Former Obama Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco used more colorful language to say much the same thing, adding that Trump was a “deranged animal.”
And Eric Holder, who was attorney general under Obama, joined in with photographic evidence of Obama paying respect to fallen soldiers.