WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump's condolence call to the widow of a slain soldier exploded into a vicious row that has swamped the White House, with the soldier's grieving mother accusing the President of disrespecting her family and a defiant Mr Trump complaining that his words had been cynically twisted for political purposes.
The back-and-forth made a furious spectacle of what is, at the best of times, one of the most emotionally wrenching contacts between the commander-in-chief and a bereaved citizen. It overshadowed any talk of Mr Trump's legislative priorities and instead recalled his history of feuding with military families or even, as in the case of Senator John McCain, a war hero.
Twelve days after four Americans were killed in an Oct 4 ambush in Niger, the President called the widow of Sergeant La David T. Johnson, who was among the slain, and said that her husband "knew what he signed up for", referring to the soldier only as "your guy", according to Sgt Johnson's mother and a Democratic congresswoman, who both listened to the call.
Mr Trump angrily disputed that account, insisting that he "had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman".
The White House accused the congresswoman, Ms Frederica S. Wilson of Florida, of politicising a sacred ritual after Mr Trump initially said she "fabricated" it.
It was, to a great extent, a self-inflicted wound.
Mr Trump opened the issue on Monday when he deflected a question about why he had not spoken publicly about the deaths of the four soldiers by falsely accusing his predecessor, President Barack Obama, of not contacting the families of fallen troops.
The White House presented chief of staff John Kelly as a character witness on Wednesday, noting that he was present for Mr Trump's call on Tuesday afternoon to Mr Johnson's wife Myeshia Johnson, and viewed it as a respectful expression of presidential sympathies.
"He thought that the President did the best job he could under those circumstances to offer condolences on behalf of the country," said Ms Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
She said Mr Kelly is "disgusted by the way this has been politicised, and that the focus has become on the process and not the fact that American lives were lost".