On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump used his Twitter account to mount an angry defense against a would-be detractor; this time, it was a U.S. congresswoman who claimed he had made insensitive comments to the pregnant widow of a fallen U.S. service member.
According to Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, Myeshia Johnson — the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was killed during a military mission in Niger earlier this month — had been in a car en route to Miami International Airport on Tuesday to receive her husband’s remains when the president called. With the phone on speaker, Wilson — the congresswoman representing Johnson’s district — claimed to have overheard the president say, “Well, I guess he knew what he signed up for. But I guess it still hurt.”
“I asked them to give me the phone because I wanted to speak with him,” an outraged Wilson told CNN in an interview. “And I was going to curse him out. That was my reaction at that time. I was livid. But they would not give me the phone.”
By Wednesday afternoon, La David Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, had confirmed to the Associated Press that Wilson’s account of Trump’s remarks had been accurate.
“Yes the statement is true,” Jones-Johnson said. “I was in the car and I heard the full conversation.”
But despite the confirmation, Trump continued to vehemently deny the characterization of his comments, tweeting that Wilson had “totally fabricated” the story and claiming to “have proof” that backed up his version of events.
That denial makes sense, considering Trump’s long-professed love for the armed forces. In the months since his inauguration alone, he has pledged to ramp up defense spending, appointed top-ranking military brass to fill his cabinet and reportedly called for the U.S. to increase its nuclear arsenal tenfold.
But even as the president has situated himself as firmly pro-military in the public image, a breadcrumb trail of aloofness toward decorated service members and faux-patriotic posturing precedes him.
This isn’t the first time Trump’s gone to war with veterans.
When communicating with his Republican base, Trump’s particular brand of nativism has long been the rosetta stone. A love for America — that elusive REAL America of yore, as referenced in his campaign promise to “Make America Great Again” — is the robe that his then-candidacy and now-presidency has always been draped in.
But in practice, Trump’s own patriotism is a shallow well. As a young man, the president notoriously eluded the draft for the Vietnam War with a timely medical diagnosis for bone spurs in his heels. That deferment was the first of five Trump would receive throughout the duration of the war, effectively ensuring that he would never be forced to enlist.
But despite having never served in the military, Trump has repeatedly displayed a public callousness towards decorated veterans.
During a 2015 summit in Ames, Iowa, Trump chose to escalate an ongoing feud with Arizona Sen. John McCain by denigrating his military tenure.
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump proclaimed to boos from the crowd. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
In August, after Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal mentioned the ongoing investigation into Russian collusion during a morning show interview, Trump lashed out in a series of tweets aimed at discrediting his military record.
“Interesting to watch Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut talking about hoax Russian collusion when he was a phony Vietnam con artist!” Trump tweeted after the interview aired.
At the apex of the 2016 presidential election, Khazir Khan, the father of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, stood onstage at the Democratic National Convention alongside his wife to blast Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
“Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America,” Khan told Trump. “You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
Trump summarily insulted the gold star family in an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, relying on cheap caricatures of the Muslim faith.
“If you look at his wife, she was standing there,” he said, referring to Ghazala Khan’s silence during her husband’s remarks. “She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”
In an op-ed penned for the Washington Post, Khan later explained that she had remained silent at her husband’s side for fear that she would break down in front of the large crowd.
“My husband asked me if I wanted to speak, but I told him I could not,” she wrote.
Trump’s poll numbers suggest the tide may be turning
As the president continues to blast the reports of his comments as false — and as additional reports of broken promises made to the families of U.S. service members killed in action, and of his repeated failures to reach out to the loved ones of fallen military personnel, continue to surface — his carefully crafted veneer of patriotism continues to erode.
As reported by FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s approval rating currently hovers at a dismal 38% (comparatively, Obama’s was at 52.6% at the same point in his first term.) In fact, according to a Marist poll published on Oct. 19, 42% of Americans believe that Trump will be remembered as one of worst presidents in U.S. history.
And while support among his Republican base largely remains steady, there are tepid signs that more white, working class Americans are becoming wise to his hypocrisy.
In a political freestyle released at the 2017 BET Awards, rapper Eminem tapped into his most salient identity as an artist — that of an angry white man — to blast the president for four and a half minutes straight.
As the freestyle reached its conclusion, the rapper let one line hang in the air: “We love our military and we love our country, but we fucking hate Trump.”
Rather than being a one-off middle finger to the president elected by an angry mass of disenfranchised Americans, the lyric represents something more: a slow-burning realization that Trump is a separate entity entirely from the military, the working class, godliness — all those things he has trussed himself up with in an effort to win supporters.