Begala: Trump’s dodge on fallen troops was a disgrace

There is no heroic action, no patriotic sacrifice, no solemn occasion that President Donald J. Trump is unwilling to turn into a narcissist’s stew of ludicrous boasts and dishonest attacks. And yet, somehow, he retains the capacity to shock many of us with his ongoing debasement of the American presidency.

Four soldiers were killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger on October 4. For 12 days the President did not publicly acknowledge their deaths. At other times, to his credit, our President has personally attended return ceremonies for fallen heroes at Dover Air Force Base, but he did not do so for Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Sgt. La David Johnson. In fact, when Johnson’s flag-draped coffin arrived at Dover, Donald Trump was playing golf.

It is shameful that President Trump did not quickly and publicly thank those heroes and their families for giving our country what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.” But it is disgraceful what he did when he was asked about his silence by a journalist. He attacked President Barack Obama.

He said: “The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls.”

He had a lot of other, better options.

The most obvious, the most decent was to simply pay tribute to these soldiers. He should have told the world that Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, was the proud product of a military family whose legacy of service dates back to the War of 1812. Wright’s aunt told the local news in southeast Georgia that, “Dustin was the most lovable, funny jokester who never met a stranger and would give his last dime to help someone in need.”

Indeed, he gave even more than that. In his service career, Wright earned the Joint Service Achievement Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Army Service Ribbon and the Special Forces tab.

Trump should have told us that Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, 35, was a Special Forces medic from Puyallup, Washington. A Green Beret who was trained to heal as well as fight, he was a dad, a husband, a beloved son. A soldier since 2009, Black had earned numerous decorations and awards, according to Stars and Stripes, including the Army Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Special Forces tab, the Ranger tab and the Marksmanship Qualification Badge for sharpshooter with rifle.

Our President should have told us that 39-year-old Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson was from Springboro, Ohio. That this month marked Johnson’s 10th year in the Army, and that he was a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist. Stars and Stripes lists his awards and commendations as including two Army Commendation Medals, five Army Achievement Medals, three Army Good Conduct Medals, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Armed Forces Service Ribbon and the Marksmanship Qualification Badge-Expert for pistol and rifle.

He should have told us about Sgt. La David Johnson, 25. He was a faithful churchgoer, a husband so devoted, he tattooed his wife’s name on his chest. His wife — now a widow — is pregnant with the couple’s third child. Their 2- and 6-year old children will never again delight at their father’s cycling stunts, which earned him the nickname “Wheelie King.” His Miami Gardens, Florida, community is so proud of its fallen hero it has set up a scholarship fund for Johnson’s children.

Johnson earned the Army Achievement Medal, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the Army Service Ribbon, the Army Parachutist Badge, the Army Air Assault Badge, the Driver and Mechanic Badge and the Marksmanship Qualification Badge-Sharpshooter with Rifle.

But President Trump did not say any of those things. Instead, he smeared President Obama — a man who spent countless hours with the families of the fallen, with wounded warriors, without fanfare. Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, did the same — and continues to do so today. It should be noted, as well, that in the first year of Obama’s term, 466 American troops died in Iraq and Afghanistan, compared with 25 this year, according to CNN.

Then a reporter challenged Trump’s assertion about Obama, and Trump responded: “I was told he didn’t often and a lot of presidents don’t. They write letters … I do a combination of both. Sometimes it’s a very difficult thing to do, but I do a combination of both. President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told.”

President Trump got more specific on Tuesday in an interview with Fox News Radio, in a reference to Marine general and current Trump chief of staff John Kelly, whose son was killed in action in Afghanistan. He said “As far as other presidents, I don’t know, you could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama? I don’t know what Obama’s policy was.” Neither Trump’s White House nor Obama aides confirmed this. But, as CNN’s Jeff Zeleny has reported, Kelly and his wife attended a 2011 Memorial Day White House breakfast for Gold Star Families during the Obama administration, and were seated with then-first lady Michelle Obama.

There is a word for President Trump’s tactic of changing the subject and shifting the blame: Whataboutism. President Trump is a master of the technique: diversion through distraction and division. It can be effective. But it is also revealing, showing us the truly hollow character of a man unworthy to lead heroes like Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and Sgt. La David Johnson.

One Air Force veteran, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, spoke for a lot of Americans this week in comments he made to Dave Zirin at The Nation. It is worth reading and reflecting on Pop’s full comments:

“I’ve been amazed and disappointed by so much of what this President had said, and his approach to running this country, which seems to be one of just a never-ending divisiveness. But his comments today about those who have lost loved ones in times of war and his lies that previous presidents Obama and Bush never contacted their families is so beyond the pale, I almost don’t have the words.

“This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner — and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers — is as low as it gets. We have a pathological liar in the White House: unfit intellectually, emotionally and psychologically to hold this office and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this President should be ashamed because they know it better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.”

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