From Condolences to Catastrophes

How Trump successfully made the worst phone call of the year

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

We all know phone conversations are the worst. They’re awkward, uncomfortable, and far from eloquent. However, President Trump just received the award for delivering the most cringe worthy and worst phone call of the year.

Trump called Myeshia Johnson on Oct. 16 to give his condolences for the tragic loss of her late husband, Sergeant La David T. Johnson, who was killed in an ambush in Niger just 12 days earlier. The ambush involved armed militants from ISGS, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, who attacked American and Nigeriens as they returned to their unarmored vehicles after a meeting with local leaders. Johnson received the call in a limousine with her two children as they were on their way to the Miami International Airport to meet the plane that carried the remains of her husband.

Johnson—and Sgt. Johnson’s mother and Democratic congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who both heard the phone call—claimed that in Trump’s condolences he said her husband “knew what he signed up for” and kept referring to him as “your guy,” and not by name.

“When she [Ms. Johnson] got off the phone, she said, ‘He didn’t even know his name. He kept calling him, ‘Your guy,’” Wilson said. “He was calling the fallen soldier, ‘Your guy.’ And he never said his name because he did not know his name. So he kept saying, ‘Your guy. Your guy. Your guy.’ And that was devastating to her.” In an interview with CNN several days after the phone call, Johnson said, “I felt worse after Trump’s call” and, “It made me cry even worse.”

President Trump has angrily denied these accusations, claiming that Congresswoman Wilson “totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action” and that he “had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.”

Despite pressure from the media and the American people for Trump to apologize to Johnson, Trump instead continues to deny the accusations. In a meeting at the White House with the Senate, Trump issued a statement saying, “I didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all, she knows it … And she now is not saying it. I did not say what she said.” In response to this statement, Ms. Wilson reiterated that she still stands by her original accusations.

At this point in his presidency, are we even surprised that Trump would say something offensive to a woman who just tragically lost her husband? Trump continues to deny these accusations, which seems futile considering the conversation was overheard by three different people. Furthermore, why would Johnson make up a phone call conversation, especially amid the events of her husband’s death. Seems like she’d have other things on her mind. There is no debate over whether or not Trump offended her, and if you don’t believe this, consider the fact that in his statements of denial he still didn’t know the names of the Johnsons, using vague terms like “I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife” and “the wife of a soldier who died in action.”  In these statements, it’s clear Trump lacks empathy and doesn’t care about the Johnsons. If he did care, he would have taken the time to learn their names.

Anyway, Trump has said enough offensive stuff in the past—why would this instance be any different? Judging by his past actions, I have no doubt that he was rude during this phone call, and at this point, America basically expects it from him. Just a few days after the incident with Johnson, Trump made yet another blunder, by failing to stand during a military bugle call and joking, “What a nice sound that is. Are they playing that for you or for me?” The ceremonial bugle call signifies the “retreat” or lowering of the American flag on a military installation. It’s interesting, then, that Trump disrespects the American flag in this situation, but condemns those who take a knee during the national anthem. See the hypocrisy? This is yet another example of how Trump’s actions are incongruent with his self-proclaimed reverence to the military. In cases like these, it’s clear Trump doesn’t inherently care, but simply pretends to. And that attitude of his is explicitly displayed almost every single day, like in the treatment of the Johnson family.

It’s how Trump handled the aftermath of the phone call that was almost worse than the actual call. Any sensible person would have fervently issued an apology for their mistake so the matter could be settled. Instead, Trump has acted as immature as a 3-year-old denying they stole a cookie from the jar: “I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it!” As of today, we are still awaiting a sincere apology, but I wouldn’t hold your breath if I were you.

One last matter to consider, if Sgt. Johnson were a white man, would Trump’s rhetoric have been different? Would words like, “He was a hero and made the ultimate sacrifice” surface to his mouth in the case of a white soldier, whereas “He knew what he signed up for” came out in the case of a black soldier? It seems like it is no coincidence that a phone call involving such disregard and unsympathetic condolences was issued to a person of color. Who knew one short phone call could cause so much trouble.

I don’t know about you guys, but these are six calls I’d rather receive than a call from Donald Trump:

  1. “I know you weren’t on the schedule, but I need you to come into work this weekend.”
  2. “Hi, can you please come pay my bail one more time?”
  3. “I’m sorry, your pizza delivery is running an hour behind.”
  4. “It’s not me, it’s you.”
  5. “Hi, this is your doctor, and yes, you have herpes.”
  6. “Seven days.”

In light of his responses to Charlottesville, the NFL protests, and now Johnson’s death, Trump has proven his greatest accomplishment to be offending people. And folks, it’s only been one year… this is just the beginning.