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Trump denies telling widow of fallen soldier 'he knew what he signed up for'

October 18, 2017 - 5:26 am
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(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump Wednesday denied telling the widow of a fallen U.S. soldier "he knew what he signed up for" in a phone call he made Tuesday, contradicting a Florida congresswoman who said she was with the woman at the time.

Rep. Frederica Wilson said she was with Myeshia Johnson in a car headed to Miami International Airport Tuesday afternoon to meet the body of Johnson's late husband, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who died in Africa this month, when the president called.

In an interview with CNN Tuesday night, the Democratic congresswoman said of Trump's comment about Sgt. Johnson: "Basically, he said, 'Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for. But I guess it still hurt.' That's what he said."

Trump denied Wilson's claim and said he had a "very nice conversation" with Johnson, "who sounded like a lovely woman."

"I didn't say what that congresswoman said, and she knows it," Trump told reporters Wednesday at the White House. "I didn't say it at all."

Trump also tweeted Wednesday morning, "Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof)."

When asked about his claim of "proof" that disputes Wilson's account, the president said Wednesday from the Oval Office, "Let her make her statement again and then you’ll find out."

Rep. Wilson responded Wednesday to Trump's tweet, calling him a "sick man" and saying she has her own proof.

"I'm not trying to prove anything with the president,” Wilson said in an interview with CNN Wednesday morning. “So the president evidently is lying.

“Because what I said is true. I have no reason to lie on the president of the United States. With a dead soldier in my community. I have no time. I have no motive.”

Early Wednesday Trump called that description a "total fabrication" and suggested Wilson would issue a correction to her statement. Instead, Wilson doubled down on her criticism of the president.

"It was the wrong thing to say, but that’s not the worst part," Wilson said. "He did not even know La David Johnson’s name. He kept referring to him as your guy. He never called his name. So that was even more painful."

Wilson said other family members who overheard the conversation also seemed upset by it.

"He didn’t call her by name, he didn’t call anyone by name. He was just talking. That was so insensitive and so terrible and I felt insulted, and I’m sure the widow felt insulted and everyone else in the car was just shaking their heads," she said.

The president also said in a tweet Wednesday he had "proof" Wilson wasn't telling the truth. White House spokesman Sarah Sanders later said the president was referring to officials who were in the room with Trump during the call and could corroborate his version of the conversation. Sanders said there is no recording of the call.

Sanders called Wilson's actions "disgusting" and accused her of politicizing the death of a soldier. "I think it's appalling what the congresswoman has done and the way she's politicized this issue and the way that she's trying to make this about something that it isn't," she said.

Wilson, for her part, does not deny politicizing the call. When asked about it by ABC News, she said she's a politician and acts as a voice for the people. "When I pick up a puppy, I'm politicizing it," Wilson said.

She also said the deadly ambush in Niger that killed Sgt. Johnson and three other special operations soldiers leaves so many unanswered questions that "this is going to be Mr. Trump's Benghazi," a reference to the 2012 attack that killed four Americans.

When asked by ABC Miami affiliate WPLG-TV whether she was sure about what she heard Trump say, Wilson responded, "Yeah, he said that. To me that is something that you can say in a conversation, but you shouldn’t say that to a grieving widow. And everyone knows when you go to war, you could possibly not come back alive. But you don’t remind a grieving widow of that. That’s so insensitive."

La David Johnson died earlier this month in Niger when he was ambushed by militants believed to be linked to ISIS. His pregnant widow broke down in tears hugging his casket Tuesday as it was unloaded from the airplane.

Wilson told WPLG, "Now I didn’t hear the entire conversation, but when I tried to find out what the entire conversation was, she said I just can’t remember everything that he said. But that stood out in everyone’s, uh heart, on the call. You don’t say that. He is the president of the United States.”

“This is a soldier who gave his life for his country. He is a hero in our minds, in our communities’ minds, that is an insult to the entire Miami Gardens community, to our entire District 24, to Miami-Dade County, and to this nation. And I hope he did not say that to the other 3 families that he called,” she added.

The full context of the president's comment as described by Wilson is not known.

And the White House has declined to comment on the remarks that are being attributed to Trump.

"The president's conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private," a White House official told ABC News Tuesday night.

The controversy comes just a day after Trump criticized former President Obama for not always reaching out to the family of fallen soldiers. Trump was asked why he hadn't reached out to the families of victims of the Niger attack, and he responded by criticizing former presidents.

"If you look at President [Barack] 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 am able to do it," Trump said on Monday. "They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call. I'm going to be calling them. I want a little time to pass. I'm going to be calling them."

Trump made calls to family members of all four killed servicemen on Tuesday.

In an appearance on ABC News' The View Wednesday, Wilson elaborated on her reaction, saying she wanted to confront the president and "cuss him out."

As for Johnson's reaction, Wilson said, "She was crumbled up in a ball.... She had just found out that her husband would not be able to have an open-casket funeral because of the condition of the body. So she was grief-stricken.

"She said he doesn't even know his name," Wilson said of the widow.

Wilson said she was not politicizing anything by sharing what she heard from the phone call.

"He died as a sergeant. He died as a hero," Wilson said.

She added, "And Mr. Trump was extremely insensitive to that family and I will stick by that. I'm not trying to politicize it, but I think it was a disgrace."

Despite the president's pushback, Wilson is standing by her remarks.

Sgt. Johnson's mother told The Washington Post that Wilson's remarks are "accurate."

Asked by ABC Miami affiliate WPLG-TV whether she was sure about what she heard Trump say, Wilson responded, "Yeah, he said that. To me, that is something that you can say in a conversation, but you shouldn't say that to a grieving widow. And everyone knows when you go to war, you could possibly not come back alive. But you don't remind a grieving widow of that. That's so insensitive."

Johnson was one of four soldiers killed in Niger when a joint patrol of American and Niger forces was ambushed Oct. 4 by militants believed linked to ISIS. Johnson enlisted in the Army in January 2014 as a wheeled-vehicle mechanic and was assigned to the 3rd Special Forces Group, a Green Beret unit based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The military says his body was found Friday after an extensive search; his body was initially listed as missing.

The bodies of the three other U.S. troops were recovered shortly after the attack, which also killed four Niger military members. The U.S. and Niger forces were leaving a meeting with tribal leaders when they were ambushed.

Johnson, mother to the couple's 2-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, is expecting their third child in January.

A GoFundMe account set up to pay for education costs for the couple's three children skyrocketed on Tuesday evening. The campaign, which was set up on Tuesday, met its goal of $100,000 and kept climbing to over $146,000 by 3 a.m. on Wednesday. Over 3,100 people had donated to the fund early Wednesday. TV producer Bill Prady donated $5,000 to the campaign and offered to match donors for another $5,000.


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