Foon Rhee

Enough with Trump’s botched condolence call. Let’s focus on soldiers at war.

Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, kisses her husband’s casket during his funeral service in Hollywood, Fla., on Saturday.
Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, kisses her husband’s casket during his funeral service in Hollywood, Fla., on Saturday. South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

It’s too bad, but the controversy over President Donald Trump’s condolence call to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger is still going strong, even after the soldier’s funeral over the weekend.


It’s one of those brutal inside-the-Beltway blowups, full of he said-she said accusations and personal attacks, that dominate cable TV for days – but that mostly miss many of the real issues.

We already know that Trump plays fast and loose with the facts, lashes out at anyone and everyone he thinks has crossed him, and lacks the common touch in expressing empathy. Remember him tossing paper towels like basketballs to Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico?

What hasn’t received nearly enough attention is how Trump is sending more U.S. soldiers into harm’s way – including a reported 4,000 to America’s longest war in Afghanistan – and giving the military more freedom on rules for combat.

I doubt many of us knew that U.S. forces were in Niger to fight the war on terror (some members of Congress didn’t), or can find it on a map of Africa. While the Oct. 4 ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers is being investigated, the White House still hasn’t confirmed that Trump even ordered the mission. Democrats are demanding congressional hearings. Fine, but don’t turn them into a circus, as Republicans did with the four U.S. deaths in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. Though political revenge would be sweet, Democrats have to show voters they can be more responsible.

The bigger debate we really need is on Trump’s views on using military force. It’s good that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans a hearing later this month on Trump’s war powers and whether to update the post-9/11 authorization. There’s also a bill that would require Congress to approve a nuclear first strike. If we take seriously the threats Trump routinely makes, he could have many more condolence calls to make.

Trump laid the groundwork for this story by questioning how previous presidents handled military deaths, even though Roll Call reports that he was exaggerating when he claimed on Oct. 17 that he had contacted nearly every family that had lost a service member this year.

The controversy intensified Thursday when White House Chief of Staff John Kelly came to Trump’s defense. Attention focused on Kelly blasting Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida – who criticized what Trump said in a phone call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson – and whether Kelly made false claims.

But what I also found compelling was when Kelly, a retired Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan, would only take questions from reporters who knew a Gold Star family. That ruled out almost the entire White House press corps.

Closeness to the military shouldn’t be a requirement to question a top government official. But it does highlight the fact that less than 1 percent of Americans have volunteered to serve in the 16 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks – and most have different socioeconomic backgrounds from journalists who make it to the White House.

Instead of the ugly political feuding, our focus should be on the men and women deployed around the world, including 300 Army National Guard members from the Central Valley and Sierra foothills who left last month for a nine-month deployment in Jordan.

When Trump is threatening war against North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile program, there are 23,500 U.S. service members in South Korea, plus 39,000 in Japan and 6,000 on Guam, which North Korea has threatened to obliterate in response to Trump. The “surgical” missile strike Trump ordered on a Syrian air base in April in retaliation for a nerve gas attack on civilians is far, far different than the bloody carnage that would happen in a war with North Korea.

When Trump goes next month to Asia – including Korea – I hope he really gets to know some soldiers who would go into battle on his orders. That’s how Trump can honor the troops – far more than whether he can browbeat NFL players into standing for the national anthem.

Yes, a commander in chief has to make decisions they know will lead to some deaths. But our president needs to fully appreciate the human toll of war.

As much sympathy as Johnson’s family deserves, that’s way more important than what Trump did or didn’t say in a condolence call.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee