Five reasons Trump's widow story stings
Welcome to day three of the Donald Trump condolence-call story.
It started bad, with the president questioning the way his predecessors dealt with the families of war dead. It's only gotten worse, as the story has morphed into one of an allegedly callous presidential call to a grieving widow of a US soldier killed in Niger. Here are five reasons why this snowballing story is so damaging to the president.
It cuts against a strength
Mr Trump campaigned on being a defender of the US military and, in particular, US veterans. Time and again he said those in the armed services weren't being treated well and railed against ongoing evidence of bureaucratic bungling in the veterans' health system. As a candidate and as president, he has boasted of how much the military loves him and regularly surrounded himself with soldiers and martial symbolism - a way of burnishing his credentials as a strong commander-in-chief. He appointed ex-generals to his administration and lined his redecorated Oval Office with flags.
Now he has to deal with accusations that he is dishonouring the memory of servicemember who died on his watch. Questions are already swirling about why these soldiers were put in harm's way and whether enough was done to ensure their safety. Reporters are digging into other contacts Mr Trump has had with the families of slain soldiers. The Washington Post reports that of 11 it reached, seven had been contacted by the president. One father said Mr Trump had promised him a personal check for $25,000 (£18,900) but hadn't delivered.
Four others had heard nothing and were angry. The next time the president surrounds himself with soldiers, the public might be reminded of this - and become angry, too.
It re-enforces a weakness
An important job of a modern US president is to serve as "consoler-in-chief"; a stable, reassuring voice in times of national distress or tragedy. This can take place on a large scale - when visiting the site of a natural disaster or high-profile accident - or small, in comforting a family member grieving over their loss. It's a skill that successful politicians learn early on - the human touch - and anti-politician Trump is having a difficult time with it. In the days after Puerto Rico was struck by a massive hurricane, he was tweeting about the territory's pre-existing financial mismanagement and escalating a feud with San Juan's mayor.
In the hours after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville led to violent clashes and the death of a counter-protester, Mr Trump gave a statement about how there was blame on both sides. Mr Trump responded to the militant attack on London Bridge by criticising the city's mayor. He's responded to other attacks, foreign and domestic, by claiming they vindicated his policy proscriptions.
The president has also developed a reputation for getting embroiled in petty disputes. His counter-puncher mentality, while it has served him well against his presidential rivals, also has led him into spats with a former beauty queen, celebrities, sports stars, major companies, prominent journalists, members of his own party and the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq. That last one seems pretty relevant at this point.
It makes a bad story worse
It's worth remembering that this whole swirling story started because Mr Trump was asked why four US soldiers had died in Niger and why it took him so long to respond. In fact, it had been 12 days and the president had issued no statement - tweet, comment or White House release - about the incident whatsoever. Mr Trump defended himself by taking an (inaccurate) shot at his predecessors for not making similar calls. Although he later backed away from such a sweeping statement, the following day he told a reporter to ask his chief of staff, John Kelly if he had received a call from President Obama.
Mr Kelly's son had been killed in Iraq, and the ex-general has been reluctant to publicly discuss details of his grief. The White House said he hadn't been called, but it was later revealed that he attended an event for Gold Star families - parents of slain soldiers - hosted by the Obama administration. The chief of staff was notably absent on Tuesday during Mr Trump's joint press appearance with the prime minister of Greece.
Then the president called Johnson's widow, and ... didn't help the situation. Now he's in a war of words with a sharp-tongued Democratic congresswoman over a story that, however one slices it, does not paint the president in a good light. Mr Trump once again has shown that he doesn't believe in the Law of Holes - that when you're in a hole, you stop digging. Instead he seems to think that if he keeps digging long enough, he'll come out on the other side.
It's evidence of a sloppy White House
This story could have been nipped in the bud early, with some sort of presidential statement of condolence shortly after the 4 October Niger incident. In fact, according to Politico, a release had been drafted and circulated within the National Security Council on 5 October - but it never saw the light of day. During Wednesday's White House press conference, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that there were administration protocols that had to be followed before the names of slain US servicemen could be released - but that wouldn't have applied to the draft statement responding to reports, which didn't mention the soldiers' names.
"Somebody screwed up here, OK?" Leon Panetta, who served as defence secretary and CIA chief in the Obama administration, told The Washington Post. "You don't let that amount of time pass when our men and women in uniform have been killed."n
Compounding matters was that it appears Mr Trump went into the conversation with Johnson's widow without a clear script. It's not outside the realm of possibility that while Mr Trump's intentions were good, his preparation was poor - and he misspoke or made comments open to misinterpretation.
All of this could have been avoided with more careful planning.
It's (another) distraction
This is a big month for Mr Trump. If he wants to see Congress pass a tax cut before the end of the year, the coming weeks will be when it gets off the ground. Democrats are pushing hard to paint the proposal as an unaffordable sop to the rich - and Republicans need to get their message out before public opinion is solidified.
The president also took high-risk gamble in ending cost-sharing subsidies that help insurance companies provide affordable policies to less affluent Americans. Without congressional action, some premiums could skyrocket. If Mr Trump isn't vigorous in defending his decision, he'll be the one that takes the brunt of the blame. The federal budget process is heating up as well. Although the day of fiscal reckoning was pushed back to the end of December thanks to a deal with the Democrats, that deadline is growing closer every day. If the president wants to see funds for his priorities, like the Mexican border wall, he'll need to be fully engaged in congressional negotiations.
Speaking of negotiations, talks with Mexico and Canada to modify the North America Trade Agreement are hanging by a thread. If they fall apart, the president may have to make the case to the public that pulling out of the deal won't do lasting harm to the US economy. For the past three days, however, all the oxygen in Washington has been sucked up by the condolence-call story. Although Mr Trump likes to tout his presidential accomplishments, his record so far is bereft of legislative victories. Recent events have done little to help his cause.
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