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Trump’s Military Family Scandal Reveals the Profound Ugliness of His Character

Michelle Obama said the presidency "reveals who you are." Trump's handling of the deaths of four U.S. soldiers proves her right.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention was a love letter to her husband, for his accomplishments both as a president and a family man. “Today, after so many struggles and triumphs and moments that have tested my husband in ways I never could have imagined, I have seen firsthand that being president doesn’t change who you are—it reveals who you are,” she said.

Four years later, as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump battled for the presidency, the first lady reprised those lines in a speech in Northern Virginia—but this was no love letter. “At the end of the day, as I’ve said before, the presidency doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are,” she said. “And the same thing is true of a presidential campaign.” One did not have to squint to read between those lines, especially after she put a finer point on it:

If a candidate is erratic and threatening, if a candidate traffics in prejudice, fears, and lies on the trail, if a candidate has no clear plans to implement their goals, if they disrespect their fellow citizens, including folks who make extraordinary sacrifices for our country—let me tell you, that is who they are. That is the kind of president they will be. Trust me.

Trump right now is under the harshest, white-hot light of his presidency, and we’re seeing more clearly than ever who he truly is. His handling of the deaths of four Green Berets is a case study in everything that is wrong with the president—all of his pathologies and deficiencies. The scandal has revealed his character in full, and it’s even uglier than Michelle Obama imagined.

This was a slow-moving scandal, until it wasn’t. The U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger on October 4. Twelve days passed without a single public comment from the president. As we now know, from a Politico report on Wednesday, National Security Council staffers on October 5 drafted a statement for Trump to read, but for unknown reasons he never released it. Instead, he remained silent about the soldiers’ deaths—while continuing to tweet about issues far removed from his executive duties, complaining about “fake news” and criticizing anti-racist athletes who kneel in protest during the national anthem.

Finally, at an impromptu press conference on Monday, a reporter asked Trump, “Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” Trump didn’t answer the question, which specifically asked about why he’s been publicly silent. “I’ve written them personal letters,” he responded. “They’ve been sent, or they’re going out tonight, but they were written during the weekend. I will, at some point during the period of time, call the parents and the families—because I have done that, traditionally.... So, the traditional way—if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.” This was immediately proven false.

The following day, Trump called Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sergeant La David T. Johnson, one of the slain soldiers. According to Democratic Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson, who was with Myeshia Johnson when the call was made, Trump said, “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.” The call brought Johnson to tears, according to Wilson, whose account has been confirmed by Cowanda Jones-Johnson, mother of Sgt. La David T. Johnson and also verified by Myeshia Johnson herself. “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband,” Jones-Johnson told the Post.

As is his wont, Trump responded by lashing out at Wilson:

The White House has been trying to walk back this tweet: Aides don’t deny Trump said those words to Johnson, but insist he was “misunderstood.” If one wanted to be charitable, one could find extenuating excuses for Trump’s language on the phone call. It’s always difficult to console a stranger who has lost a loved one, even more so when your decisions, as president, indirectly caused that death. Trump doesn’t have much experience yet with calling bereaved military families; perhaps he was flustered, and thus wasn’t as careful with his words as he should have been. By saying that Johnson “knew what he was signing up for,” Trump might have been trying, in a clumsy way, to say that the fallen soldier bravely gave his life to defend American interests.

But Trump, who has long demonstrated a lack of empathy for suffering Americans, hasn’t earned such a charitable interpretation. He could have told the press that he erred in not delivering that October 5 statement, and apologized to Myeshia Johnson for his careless words. Instead, in an attempt to deflect blame, he told bald-faced lies about Obama and Wilson—both of whom, one can’t ignore given Trump’s racial demagoguery, are black. In reacting like a cornered rat, he only made matters worse for himself. While his lies about Obama and Wilson were immediately exposed, the political press rightly didn’t stop there; Trump’s claim to have called all grieving military families was also debunked. “You know when you hear people lying, and you want to fight? That’s the way I feel last night,” said a grieving military son, who told the Post that Trump never called his family. “He’s a damn liar.” Even worse, as that article revealed, Trump promised to give a grieving father $25,000, but never delivered. A White House spokesperson on Wednesday insisted, “The check has been sent,” then attacked “the media’s biased agenda.” In truth, the check was made out the same day as the Post’s report—almost certainly in response to it.

Some observers have tried to argue that Trump is being ill-served by those around him. “This is a failure of the president’s staff,” Sam Nunberg, former political advisor, told The Los Angeles Times. While it’s true that Trump’s White House staff is a mess, these underlings are being scapegoated for Trump’s own faults; they’re incompetent largely because their boss is incompetent. As Michelle Obama said in her 2012 DNC speech, “I’ve seen how the issues that come across a president’s desk are always the hard ones—the problems where no amount of data or numbers will get you to the right answer, the judgment calls where the stakes are so high, and there is no margin for error. And as president, you can get all kinds of advice from all kinds of people. But at the end of the day, when it comes time to make that decision, as president, all you have to guide you are your values, and your vision, and the life experiences that make you who you are.”

As a useful microcosm of Trump’s presidency and his character, the bereavement scandal could not be a more damning indictment of his value, his vision, and the life experiences that led him to the White House. And this is an equally damning indictment of the millions of Americans who put him there, after convincing themselves that Trump that he was not the sum of his numerous, manifest flaws—that was not who he seemed to be.

Last year, some of Trump’s most ardent advocates suggested that he was a different man in private—not the raging, petulant bigot witnessed at rallies and on Twitter. This calmer, more reasonable Trump would emerge soon, we were told. “If the public sees the Donald Trump I’ve gotten to know in private, he will not be stopped,” RNC chair Reince Priebus said in July 2016.It’s just taken longer to pivot and I think he’s pivoting.” Trump never pivoted—not after he won the Republican nomination, not after winning the election, and not after his inauguration.

Michelle Obama had predicted as much in her speech in Virginia. “A candidate is not gonna suddenly change once they get into office,” she said. “Just the opposite, in fact, because the minute that individual takes that oath, they are under the hottest, harshest light there is. And there is no way to hide who they really are. And at that point it’s too late.” It is too late indeed. Obama’s warning ultimately did not persuade enough swing state voters to pick Clinton over Trump, and now we’re living with the consequences of a president whose character is even more corrupt his administration is.

Lest we forget, amid this diagnosis of Trump’s many personal deficiencies, that this all started because Trump failed in his professional duty. He was asked a simple question: Why hadn’t he said anything about the four soldiers killed in Niger? As commander-in-chief, his job is not only to console grieving families, but to explain to the American public what the military is doing—especially when his administration puts soldiers in harm’s way, and something goes wrong. Why, for instance, is the American military in Niger? What were the circumstances that led to these death? How will this impact the American military’s mission against Al Qaeda in Africa? These questions remain unanswered amid a controversy of Trump’s own making. He changed the conversation, and now we must change it back. The four grieving families deserve nothing less.