Myeshia Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson’s wife, has broken her silence, and we’re now getting a clear picture of what happened in the entire sad and sorry controversy over Donald Trump’s phone call. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos, she claims that Trump seemed to struggle to remember her late husband’s name and that Trump did make the statement that “he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway.” You can see the interview below:
Instead, we saw a Democratic representative publicly attack the president for the call, and the president then publicly respond with repeated tweets claiming she lied:
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 20, 2017
Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 18, 2017
Trump did what he so often does — launched into attack mode without regard for context or truth. There’s now overwhelming evidence that Trump did say something like “he knew what he signed up for.” Sergeant Johnson’s mother says he did. A Democratic congresswoman says he did. Sergeant Johnson’s wife says he did. Crucially, Trump’s own chief of staff, General John Kelly, affirmed that’s what Trump was trying to say “in his way.”
This entire story should deeply grieve Americans. In his searing, emotional press conference General Kelly was exactly right to say that America is losing its sense of the sacred, and if the treatment of a Gold Star family isn’t sacred, then nothing is.
Here’s the problem, though. General Kelly’s boss bears the primary responsibility. No, I don’t agree with a member of the House rushing to publicly broadcast what Trump thought was a private call. But we’re now living in a political world where an opponent’s misstep or malfeasance is seen as justifying all manner of revenge and retaliation. “She politicized it first!” So now, it’s what? Game on? And if a Gold Star family is collateral damage in our political combat — asked to decide whether the president lied (again) to the American people — then so be it?
After Trump’s attacks last summer on the Khan family — and after his response to critics last week — I don’t have any real hope that he’s going to change. The rest of us, however, can decide that Trump’s tantrums won’t fundamentally change the way we treat Gold Star families. The rest of us can decide that he’s an aberration, that the next president can and must respond with dignity, and that we can and must react with one voice against any further degradation of this sacred space.
We’re now living in a political world where an opponent’s misstep or malfeasance is seen as justifying all manner of revenge and retaliation.
And make no mistake, this sacred space matters. It’s first and most importantly about basic human decency and compassion. If you haven’t been with a Gold Star family in the days after they’ve lost a son or husband or father, it’s tough to imagine the unique agony. You get a hint of it in Myeshia Johnson’s interview, where she says she was never able to see her husband’s body. Imagine the horrible implications of that one terrible fact. Then imagine you’re going through this with an entire community’s eyes fixed firmly on you. Sometimes, the president’s eyes are fixed firmly on you. In a way, it’s as if a Gold Star family not only loses a son or daughter, husband or wife, they also immediately assume a form of public office. They become part of our national life in a way that many other grieving families do not. There is a weight to this reality that most of us (mercifully) will never know.
But more than “just” compassion is at stake. Shared rituals and respect help bind our nation together. It’s one reason why so many people react emotionally to the sight of a person kneeling during the national anthem. Is there nothing that we can share together? But far deeper than any public patriotic display, in which (let’s face it) enormous numbers of Americans are only casually observant, is the deeply personal respect owed to those who’ve faced such immense loss. That means our leaders must always — always — take the high road even in the face of political criticism or even outright anger.
There are Gold Star families who famously yelled and screamed at President Bush. One Gold Star mom camped outside his ranch demanding an end to the war that killed her son. Gold Star families Left and Right have made their political views known, with deep feeling. We cannot place the burden on a Gold Star family to respond appropriately to a president. The burden is on the president to respond appropriately to the Gold Star family, and if there is any concern that the president compounded their pain, then the president’s response should be simple: “I’m sorry. That’s the last thing I wanted to do. Please forgive me.”
I fear that we won’t see that kind of humility for perhaps the next seven years. But we’ll need to see it again. We must see it again. If we don’t, then General Kelly’s anguish about the decline of our culture will be justified. And unless we the people demand better from our leaders, we will share the blame.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.