On Thursday night, following a day of back-and-forth over who said what in a phone call between the President of the United States and a military widow, President Donald Trump tweeted this: “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”
That tweet came one day after Trump first attacked Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson for her role in the phone call between himself and Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed in an ambush attack in Niger. “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning.
Here’s the thing: It seems likely that, in a very difficult spot — calling a widow to express condolences — what Trump was trying to say and how Johnson and Wilson heard it wound up being two very different things.
At one level, that’s understandable — if regrettable. Trump, who never held any political office before running for president, was trying his best to find the right words in a situation in which there are no words. Myeshia Johnson was — and is — trying to deal with the grief of losing a husband and not even knowing all the facts that led to his death. A normal phone call about nothing sometimes gets misinterpreted. One with this much emotional baggage attached to it? It’s easy to see how the two sides just didn’t connect.
But — and this is always the same “but” with Trump — the story didn’t stop there. He had to respond — and respond publicly — to Wilson’s contention that the call had been received poorly.
Suddenly the story wasn’t about the death of Johnson. It was about whether Trump had “proof” that Wilson was lying. (He didn’t — although White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said several people, including chief of staff John Kelly, were listening to the call and thought the President handled it well.) About what, exactly, Trump had said. Over Wilson being “wacky.” Over whether she “secretly” listened to the call between Trump and Johnson. (She didn’t; the call was taken on speakerphone.)
This storyline has become de rigeur for Trump. In virtually every situation to date in his presidency — and in his time as a candidate — when Trump has been presented with the chance to take the high road, to act in a way consistent with the 43 men who have held the office before him, he has veered off onto the low road.
Take Charlottesville. The violence and intolerance on display from the white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee could have been a moment in which Trump condemned bigotry and hate. He could have used the moment to address his own past dalliances with racist dog whistling during the campaign. He could have made an appeal to the country’s better angels.
He did none of that. He focused — both in the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville and in the weeks and months that have followed — on the idea that the violence was on “both sides.”
A moment that could have been used as a jumping-off point for an honest conversation about race turned into a gutter-level fight about how right (or not) Trump was in his condemnation of the radical left.
While Charlottesville is the most high-profile example of Trump’s low-road-ism, there’s myriad other ones — some big, some small — throughout his presidency. His decision to pick a fight over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. His decision to engage in a schoolyard name-calling contest with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. His pointless fight over the crowd size at his inauguration. His attacks on his own Cabinet members, most notably Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The savaging of the special counsel investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election. His obsession with demonstrating how great his response to the Puerto Rico devastation has been. And on and on. And on.
The simple fact is that Trump’s low-road approach to the presidency is a fundamental break from all the men — Democrats and Republicans — who have held the presidency before him. Whereas those presidents often refused to punch back when attacked or left something unsaid that they really wanted to say, Trump is committed only to proving himself right. And he will resort to any means to do so.
The reason is obvious: Trump’s entire life — all 71 years — has been focused on winning at all costs. His self-image as a perennial winner takes priority — always. The key is “am I winning” rather than, as with the men who came before Trump, “is this a good thing for the country.”
There is no way that this prolonged fight between Trump and Johnson/Wilson over the death of an American soldier in Niger is a good thing for the country. If we can’t agree — no matter who said what to whom — that this whole thing has been a massive distraction from a) mourning La David Johnson and b) getting to the bottom of what exactly happened to Johnson and the 3 other soldiers killed in that ambush, we are in a very bad place.
And, we are in that very bad place in no small part due to the fact that the man in the White House is forever compelled to take the low road.