- Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images
It’s been a wild eight days as President Donald Trump has feuded with a Florida congresswoman and a Gold Star family.
And the controversy, which has yet to dwindle, began when Trump was asked a week ago why he hadn’t mentioned anything about an early-October ambush in Niger that led to the deaths of four US servicemembers.
From that question stemmed days of back-and-forth between Trump, his chief of staff John Kelly, aides of past presidents, a member of Congress, former members of the military, and Gold Star families. The controversy has continued almost uninterrupted for more than a full week.
Here’s how the whole ordeal unfolded:
Monday, October 16
- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
During a joint press conference alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last Monday, Trump was asked about why he had not addressed the ambush in Niger.
Responding to that question, Trump said he had written letters and would call the families of the four fallen US soldiers.
But then he added the false claim that former President Barack Obama and other past presidents “didn’t make calls.”
“I call when it’s appropriate,” he said.
Trump backed off the claim slightly when pressed by another reporter at the same press conference. Soon after, former aides to Obama and other past presidents pushed back on the claim that they did not make calls to soldiers killed in action.
The criticism quickly grew, leading to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters that Trump “wasn’t criticizing predecessors, but stating a fact.”
“When American heroes make the ultimate sacrifice, presidents pay their respects,” Sanders said. “Sometimes they call, sometimes they send a letter, other times they have the opportunity to meet family members in person. This president, like his predecessors, has done each of these. Individuals claiming former presidents, such as their bosses, called each family of the fallen, are mistaken.”
Tuesday, October 17
The controversy remained when Trump did a round of interviews on conservative talk radio Tuesday morning.
It was during that round of interviews that Trump said he contacted the families of “virtually everybody” killed in the line of duty and doubled-down on his claims about his predecessors, specifically Obama.
“You can ask General Kelly. Did he get a call from Obama?” Trump told Fox News Radio host Brian Kilmeade during an interview. Kelly’s son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
“I don’t know what Obama’s policy was,” Trump told Kilmeade. “I write letters, and I also call.”
Later that night, Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson told Miami news station WPLG that while speaking with Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the troops killed in Niger, Trump said, “He knew what he signed up for, but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”
“Yeah, he said that,” Wilson said. “So insensitive. He should not have said that – he shouldn’t have said it.”
Wilson, who mentored the fallen soldier when he was younger, later told CNN’s Don Lemon she was riding in a car with the servicemember’s family on their way to receive his body when Trump called. She said the phone was on speaker.
Wednesday, October 18
- Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Trump responded to Wilson on Wednesday, and the back-and-forth between them has continued since.
Wilson began Wednesday by telling MSNBC that Myeshia was “crying the whole time” and that when she hung up the phone, she looked at the congresswoman and said, “He didn’t even remember his name,” referring to her late husband.
“It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid,” Wilson said.
Trump fired back at Wilson on Twitter, claiming she “totally fabricated” her account of his phone conversation with Myeshia.
“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!” Trump tweeted, though he did not elaborate.
But the fallen soldier’s mother said Wilson’s account was accurate in an interview with The Washington Post.
“President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Cowanda Jones-Johnson told The Post. Though she declined to elaborate, she said “yes” when asked whether Wilson’s account was true, The Post reported.
Speaking to the press during a White House meeting with the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, Trump again pushed back on Wilson’s account of what he said.
“Didn’t say it at all,” he said. “She knows it. And she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said and I’d like her to make the statement again because I did not say what she said. I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.”
Responding to Trump’s claim that she “totally fabricated” her account of the conversation, Wilson called him “a sick man.”
“He’s cold-hearted and he feels no pity or sympathy for anyone,” she told CNN.
Soon after that, media outlets began reporting on Trump’s contacts with other Gold Star families.
In a Post story, one Gold Star father said Trump offered him $25,000 after his son was killed. But the president hadn’t followed through when The Post contacted the father for its story.
Chris Baldridge, whose son, Army Sgt. Dillon Baldridge, was killed in June in Afghanistan, told The Post that Trump offered to write Baldridge a personal check for $25,000 and said he would work to establish an online fundraiser for the family.
“I could not believe he was saying that, and I wish I had it recorded because the man did say this,” Baldridge said. “He said, ‘No other president has ever done something like this,’ but he said, ‘I’m going to do it.'”
In a statement following The Post story, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told the publication that the check had been sent.
Thursday, October 19
- Screenshot/White House
The White House then had chief of staff Kelly come out to defend the president’s call with the soldier’s widow as the controversy became more entrenched.
And Kelly seemed to confirm the contents of Trump’s conversation that only one day prior the president had said was a fabricated account.
Saying there was “no perfect way to make that phone call” to the Johnson family, Kelly said the president intended to commend Johnson’s bravery.
Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, said he advised Trump on what to say during calls he made to the families of the four troops.
“He’s a brave man, a fallen hero,” Kelly said of Johnson. “He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted.”
“And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken,” he continued. “That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.”
Kelly also took time to blast Wilson for telling the press about the content of the phone call, calling her an “empty barrel” whose “selfish behavior” stunned him.
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in to that conversation,” he said. “Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred.”
He then told a story of the congresswoman from the dedication of the FBI’s Miami field office in 2015, which he and Wilson both attended. The office was named after two FBI agents who were killed in the 1980s during a shootout, and Kelly said then-FBI Director James Comey gave a powerful speech about the men and fellow agents. After Comey’s speech, he said, he was stunned to see Wilson stand up and speak “about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building” and “how she took care of her constituents.”
But Wilson disputed Kelly’s characterization of her remarks at that dedication, saying his account was false and that the funding for the building was secured before she was a member of Congress.
“He shouldn’t be able to just say that, that is terrible,” Wilson said of Kelly. “This has become totally personal.”
That night, Trump tweeted that the “Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson (D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content.”
Meanwhile, more Gold Star families came out to discuss how they had not been contacted by Trump.
The Associated Press reached out to the families of all 43 military servicemembers who have died on duty during the Trump presidency, making contact with roughly half the families. Of the families that would discuss their contact with Trump after the death of their child or spouse, nine said they had heard from Trump either in a phone call or letter, while nine others said they had not.
Friday, October 20
- Screenshot via WPLG
Wilson, again pointing to Kelly’s comments from the past day, called his comment that she was an “empty barrel” a “racist term.”
A bombshell would drop soon after. As The Sun Sentinel found, Kelly’s characterization of Wilson’s comments at that FBI building dedication was false. The publication published a more-than nine minute video of her speech that day, which backed up Wilson’s claim that she had only taken credit for working across the aisle to name the building after two FBI agents who were killed in the line of duty. She effusively praised the two fallen agents in her speech.
The White House stood by Kelly’s characterization of the speech, however.
“Gen. Kelly said he was ‘stunned’ that Rep. Wilson made comments at a building dedication honoring slain FBI agents about her own actions in Congress, including lobbying former President Obama on legislation,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “As Gen. Kelly pointed out, if you’re able to make a sacred act like honoring American heroes about yourself, you’re an empty barrel.”
But the statement was carefully worded, and did not mention anything about securing funding for the building, which Kelly had initially called Wilson out for allegedly boasting about.
Then at Friday’s press briefing, amid getting grilled by a reporter over Kelly’s mischaracterization, Sanders said, “If you want to go after General Kelly that’s up to you but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s something highly inappropriate.”
Later that night, Roll Call reported that the White House scrambled on Tuesday to get a list of all the servicemembers who died in the line of duty since Trump took office after the president made his comment that he had contacted the families of “virtually everybody” who was killed.
Saturday, October 21
Trump said Saturday that Wilson was “killing the Democrat Party!”
“More I hope the Fake News Media keeps talking about Wacky Congresswoman Wilson in that she, as a representative, is killing the Democrat Party!” he tweeted.
In an interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo the president said that he “was so nice” in his phone call to Johnson’s widow Myeshia.
Sunday, October 22
Trump and Wilson then went back and forth on Twitter on Sunday.
In a pair of tweets, the congresswoman said the Niger ambush was Trump’s “Benghazi,” referencing the 2012 incident in which four Americans were killed, adding that Kelly “owes the nation an apology because when he lied about me, he lied to the American public.”
Trump again called Wilson “wacky.”
“Wacky Congresswoman Wilson is the gift that keeps on giving for the Republican Party, a disaster for Dems,” he tweeted. “You watch her in action & vote R!”
She fired back, tweeting that “name-calling is for children.”
“We need an adult to get to the bottom of what happened in #Niger,” she tweeted. “Point blank period.”
Monday, October 23
Myeshia, the fallen soldier’s widow, gave her first interview Monday, just days after her husband’s funeral.
She confirmed that Wilson’s account of the phone call was accurate, saying it was “100% correct,” adding that Trump couldn’t remember her husband’s name.
“The president said that, ‘He knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyways.’ It made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it,” she told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “He couldn’t remember my husband’s name.”
Myeshia added that Trump told her he had her husband’s report in front of him, and she felt as if he needed it to remember the soldier’s name.
“I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name,” she said. “And that’s what hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country, and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name? That’s what made me upset and cry even more.”
After the interview aired on Monday, Trump responded on Twitter.
“I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”