Opinion: Gold Star families and the president

Let me offer a few words in defense of President Trump — at least up to a point.

The president has argued, strenuously, that he had been respectful, polite and appropriate in a condolence call this week with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four U.S. soldiers killed two weeks ago in Niger. A Democratic congresswoman who overheard the call says that, to the contrary, Trump was disrespectful and even callous to the grieving family. The widow herself — pregnant with child — and the soldier’s mother have said that they too felt the president was disrespectful.

Who’s telling the truth?

I think it’s plausible, even highly likely, that both parties are honestly describing their side of what had to be an emotionally difficult conversation. Every president makes those calls to grieving families; every president dreads them. Trump may have tried to express his sincere condolences and sympathy, while his native inability to empathize with others meant that it came across as awkward and insincere. Put another way, Trump’s intentions were probably honorable, even if his execution was poor. To that degree, his frustrations and anger at media coverage are understandable.

That said, however, it was Trump and only Trump who turned this whole thing into such a politicized mess. When asked why he had so far failed to publicly acknowledge the combat deaths of the four American soldiers, he could have and should have taken the opportunity to praise their bravery and sacrifice, and to express the nation’s gratitude to their families. Instead, Trump launched an unprovoked attack on President Obama and President Bush, claiming that they had seldom if ever contacted grieving Gold Star families and that he had done so in virtually every case.

What demon drives the man to do that, to escalate an opportunity for healing into a source of bitter dispute?

Both of his claims were demonstrably false, and the attack on his predecessors was so utterly beside the point as to be bizarre. It also led reporters to dig deeper into the question, turning up the fact that last summer, Trump had promised one grieving Gold Star father to write him a personal check for $25,000, then never did so until the media reported that failure.

It is also telling that for the second occasion in his relatively brief time in the national political spotlight, Trump finds himself trapped where he never ought to be, in a deeply personal yet public spat with a Gold Star family. (The first time came with his campaign-season feud with the Khan family.)

Again, how does this keep happening? It happens because Trump is incapable of understanding that in those interactions, it is he, the president — he, the great and mighty Donald J. Trump — who must humble himself out of respect for the enormous sacrifice that those families have made. In those circumstances, he is not the more important person, and it is he who must suck it up and squelch his compulsion to “punch back twice as hard” against any perceived slight or criticism.

But the idea that he has to place the welfare of others ahead of his own ego — the idea that leads soldiers to make the ultimate sacrifice in the first place — is beyond Trump’s grasp, even in that sacred setting. The servant role does not come naturally to him. And frankly, it’s that inability to see that larger picture, to respond under pressure with something other than lashing out viciously, that makes it so dangerous to have him as our nation’s commander in chief.

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