I felt very, very badly about that. I always feel badly. The toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens. Soldiers are killed. It’s a very difficult thing. Now, it gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day. It’s a very, very tough day. For me, that’s by far the toughest. President Donald Trump talking about himself, October 16, 2017

ffering official, token comfort to the families of fallen American soldiers has been a virtually reflexive ritual since George Washington, and rightly so. The dead are men and women who gave their brief lives for belief in the country, even when their government let them die for a lie or a fraud. The issue is a matter of honoring the sacrifice of the dead, not one of how hard a job that might be for the commander who got them killed. Well, that used to be the issue, but now we have a president who wants us to focus our sympathy on himself, a man who never saw combat, a man who never served in the military, but a man who serves up gobs of public self-pity for how hard it is for him to make a few phone calls. This is Trumplandia.

When a reporter asked him on October 16 why he had not talked publicly about the October 4 ambush in Niger that killed four American soldiers, Trump responded with some of his standard techniques: he didn’t answer the question, he changed the subject, and he lied. Trump lied about President Obama and others, saying they didn’t call, or didn’t call as much as he does, or didn’t call General Kelly. The pushback was immediate (except from General Kelly), with one former Obama aide calling the statement a “fucking lie” and Trump a “deranged animal.” Now the story has legs and continues to grow as reporters motivated by the president’s disrespect go out of their way to tell true stories to impeach the president’s credibility. Turns out Trump has reached out to something like half of the families of the soldiers killed so far on his watch, and some of those interactions have not gone so well.

The four soldiers killed in Niger were all sergeants: La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida; Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia. As of October 18, Trump had apparently called only one of these four families, with disastrous results.

Trump called the pregnant widow and mother of two, Myeshia Johnson, as she was riding in a car to meet the plane carrying her husband’s flag-draped casket. Unfortunately for the president, his call was on speakerphone and there were witnesses, including her two children, Sgt. Johnson’s mother, and their congresswoman, Frederica S. Wilson. Rep. Wilson later criticized Trump for his insensitivity, never using the sergeant’s name, just calling him “your guy” over and over, and telling Mrs. Johnson, “Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt."

Trump responded by lying in a tweet, saying Rep. Wilson fabricated the conversation. He also lied saying, “I have proof.” Then Sgt. Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson confirmed that Trump had said that Sgt. Johnson “must have known what he signed up for.” But Trump kept on lying, joined by press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

All this has inflamed the already fevered speculation about Trump’s mental state, awareness of reality, fitness to serve, and of course the helplessness of almost anyone to do anything about it. As one commenter put it, “Trump’s Obama-bashing was so gratuitous — if this was a hockey game he’d get a penalty.”

Others focused on why Trump was silent about the Niger ambush fatalities for twelve days and only sort of addressed them when a reporter asked about them. One suggestion was that Trump thought that Niger was in Puerto Rico and the soldiers were Puerto Ricans. Other in and out of the White House offered a variety of speculations, not always with complete seriousness, that Trump took 12 days to offer any condolences because:

  • He thought that was the Islamic mourning period

  • They were on a training mission, so how could they get killed?

  • Two of the four are Blacks

  • They were only sergeants

  • They’re not voters anymore

  • Acknowledging his betters is anathema

  • Four is a lot of calls for 1 guy to make

  • He wanted to wait 3 days for each

  • Bad staff work

  • Ivanka was trying to decide what dresses to send the widows

  • He was waiting for a re-supply of paper towels

  • That’s not what he signed up for

So far, the White House has yet to offer a credible explanation for the 12-day Presidential Blackout, although there has been some attempt to use “bad staff work,” suggesting that they were slow over at the Pentagon. Some have pointed out in Trump’s defense that this incident is better than when the draft dodger criticized Sen. John McCain for getting captured, but that argument carries the implication that Trump is saying “at least these guys got killed” or some such thing. Not that you’d ever see him meeting a military coffin at Dover Air Force Base

Obviously no one can know what’s in Trump’s mind, perhaps not even the president himself. Until more compelling evidence is available, the best explanation for this episode and all the other White House oddities, high crimes, and misdemeanors is that Trump never really had any idea what he was signing up for.