The president of the United States effectively called a Gold Star widow a liar Monday morning - an entirely predictable but nonetheless striking moment in American political history. President Donald Trump has for a week now disputed details of his phone call with the widow, Myeshia Johnson, that were first offered by Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.; on Monday morning, Johnson confirmed that version of events, and in turn drew Trump’s tweeted retort.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about the president’s continued objections, though, is that his own White House isn’t doing the same. While Trump has disputed the story - even claiming to have still-yet-to-be-produced “proof” to back it up - the White House has largely seemed to confirm that he said the things he has been accused of saying. They simply argue that they’ve been misinterpreted.
There were basically two main claims offered by Wilson:
That Trump said the widow’s husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, “knew what he was signing up for.”
That Trump didn’t seem to recall Sgt. Johnson’s name.
Myeshia Johnson told ABC News on Monday morning that Wilson’s account was “100 percent accurate.” She added of Trump’s alleged failure to use Sgt. Johnson’s name: “I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name, 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?”
Trump objected to the first claim last week, and he objected to the second one Monday morning, after Myeshia Johnson’s ABC appearance.
Here’s the tweet from Wednesday: “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
And from Monday: “I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!”
But in contrast to Trump, others speaking for the White House have appeared to confirm these comments - at least in part.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly - himself a Gold Star father - took to the podium to defend Trump on Thursday. But in doing so, he seemed to admit that Trump said something about how Johnson knew what he had signed up for. “He knew what he was getting himself into, because he enlisted,” Kelly said. “There’s no reason to enlist. 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. That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.”
As for not remembering Johnson’s name, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed to acknowledge Wednesday that Trump may not have regularly used it during the call:
QUESTION: What do you say about her comment that he did not know - and the wife, the widow, said that the president did not know his name; he kept saying “your guy,” “your guy”?
SANDERS: Just because the president said “your guy,” I don’t think that means he doesn’t know his name.
It would be one thing to argue that your comments were misconstrued. That’s plausible, as I argued when this first blew up. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., last week suggested that might have been the case, and he urged Trump to simply call Myeshia Johnson to clear things up. “If there’s any doubt that the president said something inappropriate, call up and say, ‘I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry,’ ” Graham said.
Trump took a very different course, opting for full, blanket denials. But Trump’s own White House has revealed those broad claims of absolution to be disingenuous at best. Far from producing proof of what he said being “totally fabricated,” Trump’s case has fallen apart thanks to those tasked with defending him.
Aaron Blake is a Washington Post columnist.