Why Does Trump Keep Going After Gold Star Families?


Trump can't seem to let this one go. Monday morning the president insisted that he had a "very respectful" conversation with Myeisha Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who said that the president forgot her husband's name during his condolence call. This brings the he-said, she-said saga to day five, causing critics to ask, why on earth is Trump attacking Gold Star families?

"I think it's just a question of [Trump's] style and the way he does business," Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense, tells Bustle. "He's not a very sympathetic person and not a person who seems to understand the decorum. I'm sure he did that under pressure and he wasn't prepared, obviously."

The controversy began on Oct. 18 when Johnson's mother said Trump disrespected her son during a condolence phone call. According to Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, Trump also belittled her son's service and said he “must have known what he signed up for.” Trump has denied making the comments about Johnson, but he had his Chief of Staff John Kelly and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders come to his defense. They spent the better part of last week attacking Rep. Frederica Wilson, who was also on the initial phone call and supported Jones-Johnson's interpretation of events.

"He didn't know the name of the person, and he used a message that General John Kelly said to him," Korb explains. "It's one thing for two Marines to say to each other, but you can't say that to a family member."

“I heard him stumbling trying to remember my husband’s name,” Myeisha said to Good Morning America on Oct. 23. “And that’s what hurt me the most. Because if my husband is out fighting for our country and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name? And that’s what made me upset and cry even more, because my husband was an awesome soldier."

"I think a clear impact is that Donald Trump is reminding military personnel that their commander-in-chief is not in their corner," Will Fischer, Director of Government Relations at VoteVets, tells Bustle. "When he makes a comment they 'know what they signed up for,' he's telling military personnel that they’re expendable."

The feud might have been forgivable if it wasn't part of a larger pattern, Fischer says. Trump's issues with military families actually began during the Democratic National Convention last year. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of Army Captain Humayun Khan, lambasted Trump for his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants and his idea to require Muslim Americans to register with the federal government.

In an interview with ABC, Trump criticized Ghazala, who chose not to speak on stage, implying that her silence was because she was forbidden to speak as a Muslim woman. "If you look at his wife, she was standing there," Trump told ABC. "She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn't allowed to have anything to say. You tell me."

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Ghazala explained that she was too overwhelmed with emotion to speak about her son's death. "Donald Trump said that maybe I wasn’t allowed to say anything," she wrote. "That is not true. My husband asked me if I wanted to speak, but I told him I could not. My religion teaches me that all human beings are equal in God’s eyes. Husband and wife are part of each other; you should love and respect each other so you can take care of the family. ... Donald Trump said he has made a lot of sacrifices. He doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means."

News outlets including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press reached out to 25 of the 46 families of fallen soldiers who had been killed since January, and around half said they had not received calls from the president. The Trump administration has also been rush-shipping letters to military families in light of the recent controversies, according to the Atlantic.

Fischer says that the issue with the Khans, the Johnsons, and military families as a whole is part of a bigger problem that could jeopardize the American military's faith in their leader. "They know that when someone kisses their spouse goodbye before they head overseas for deployment," Fischer says, "Trump has no concept of what they’re going through, and he doesn’t care."