MIAMI - President Donald Trump told U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson's widow Tuesday that "he knew what he signed up for ... but when it happens, it hurts anyway," when he died serving in northwestern Africa, according to U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida.
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"Yeah, he said that," Wilson said. "So insensitive. He should have not have said that. He shouldn't have said it."
The president called about 4:45 p.m. and spoke to Johnson's pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson, for about five minutes. She is a mother to Johnson's surviving 2-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter. The conversation happened before Johnson's remains arrived at Miami International Airport on a commercial Delta Airlines flight.
"The president's conversations with the families of American heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice are private," a top advisor later told Local 10 News.
Wilson watched as the widow, who is expecting their third baby in January, leaned over the U.S. flag that was draping Johnson's casket. Her pregnant belly was shaking against the casket as she sobbed uncontrollably. Their daughter stood next to her stoically. Their toddler waited in the arms of a relative.
There was silence.
Local politicians, police officers and firefighters lined up to honor Johnson for his service and for the efforts and discipline that got the former Walmart employee to defy all odds and become a 25-year-old member of the 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Johnson, who participated in a mentorship program Wilson founded in 1993, died during a mission fighting alongside Green Berets. Islamic militants ambushed them on Oct. 4 with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. The team reportedly didn't have overhead armed air cover and was in unarmored pickup trucks. Reuters reported the lack of planning upset the French.
Trump didn't discuss any of the details of the ambush or say that the Pentagon was conducting an investigation. Instead, he focused on questions about whether or not he had offered his condolences to the families of the fallen.
"I will, at some point, during the period of time, call the parents and the families, because I have done that, traditionally," Trump said during a news conference last week.
Wilson criticized Trump for failing to acknowledge Johnson's death after he was left behind during the evacuation. It took nearly two days to find his body in the Republic of Niger's desert. Johnson's body made it to the U.S. on Oct. 7 when Trump was playing golf with Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Amid the controversy, Trump later said President Barack Obama and other presidents didn't make calls to the relatives of all fallen servicemen and women. Aides for both President George W. Bush's and Obama reacted on Twitter and in The Huffington Post, saying the president misspoke.
Trump later backpedaled the claim during an interview with NBC's Peter Alexander.
"President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do, all I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. And some presidents didn’t do anything," Trump said. "But I like the combination of, I like, when I can, the combination of a call and also a letter."
The Atlantic's David A. Graham believes Trump used the controversy to distract reporters. Despite the criticism, Trump continued the discussion on Fox News Radio when he raised doubt about whether or not Obama called his chief of staff, John Kelly, when Kelly's son died.
Graham said it was Trump's strategy to distract reporters from the important questions about the deadly ambush in Africa.
"The broader question, of what the soldiers who were killed were doing and what went wrong, remains unaddressed by the president, and Trump’s jab at other presidents may, unfortunately, help to keep it that way," Graham wrote.
After an emotional procession from Miami-Dade County to Broward County, Johnson's remains were at a funeral home in Hollywood. There will be a public viewing from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and a funeral service from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, at the Christ The Rock Church at 11000 Stirling Road in Cooper City. The internment will be at the Hollywood Memorial Gardens, at 3001 N. 72 St.
According to officials with the Department of Defense, the other three victims of the attack were Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
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