WHITE HOUSE —
President Donald Trump has denied making insensitive comments to the wife of an American soldier killed in Niger, saying he has proof a Florida lawmaker “fabricated” a story saying the president told the soldier's widow that her husband “knew what he signed up for.”
The congresswoman, who made the charge Tuesday, has rejected the president’s statement, and says she has proof that her story is accurate.
Sergeant La David Johnson was among four U.S. soldiers killed Oct. 4 near the Niger-Mali border in an ambush that U.S. officials believe was carried out by Islamic State-affiliated fighters.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who represents the district where Johnson's family lives, said she was listening in on the call Trump made to Johnson’s widow, Myeshia, while family members were in a limousine en route to an airport to meet the soldier’s body.
Recounting phone call
Speaking to MSNBC on Wednesday, Wilson said Trump “was almost like joking,” during the conversation, which was on a speaker in the car.
“He said, Well, I guess you know, something to the effect that 'he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway,’ ” Wilson explained to MSNBC.
“It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid,” she said.
WATCH: Trump Defends His Handling of US Soldier's Death in Niger
La David Johnson's mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Washington Post that she was also in the car, and that President Trump “did disrespect my son and my daughter, and also me and my husband.”
Trump responded to Congresswoman Wilson's allegations Wednesday, tweeting that she had “totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
Later, as he sat down for a meeting with a group of senators, Trump again rejected the family’s version of the phone call.
“I didn't say what that congresswoman said; didn't say it all. She knows it. And she now is not saying it,” Trump replied to a reporter’s question. “I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who was, sounded like a lovely woman.”
As a debate over the propriety of the president's words raged on cable news networks Wednesday, the Florida lawmaker fired back with a Twitter post of her own: “I still stand by my account of the call b/t @realDonaldTrump and Myesha Johnson. That is her name, Mr. Trump. Not ‘the woman’ or ‘the wife,’ ” Wilson wrote.
In a separate interview with CNN, the lawmaker said, “I have proof, too. This man is a sick man.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused Wilson of mischaracterizing the phone call for political purposes. “I think it is appalling and disgusting what Representative Wilson has done and the way she’s politicized this.”
Sanders refused to get into the details of the president’s conversation with Myeshia Johnson, but said several White House staffers, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, had been listening in on the call.
“The president’s call as recounted by multiple people in the room believe that the president was completely respectful, very sympathetic and expressed the condolences of himself and the rest of the country, and thanked the family for their service, commended them for having an American hero in their family and I don’t know how you could take that any other way,” Sanders said.
Trump’s handling of the deaths of U.S. servicemen and women was raised at a Rose Garden news conference Monday, when he was pressed about why he had not commented on the incident 12 days after it happened, and had not contacted the families of the four killed in Niger.
In his reply, Trump said he had written letters and would call the relatives, adding that generals serving in his administration had told him some previous presidents, including Barack Obama, had not always personally contacted families of fallen American soldiers,
That claim sparked outrage and sharp rebukes from former members of Obama's staff. Alyssa Mastromonaco, who served as Obama's deputy chief of staff, described Trump as “a deranged animal” and uttered an expletive in calling his comment a “lie.”
The Politico website reported Wednesday that the National Security Council staff had drafted a statement of condolence on Oct. 5, a day after the incident happened. But it was never issued, possibly because there was some initial confusion about the number of casualties.
U.S. military officials have ordered a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the ambush that killed Sergeant Johnson and three other members of an elite airborne Army unit that was assisting local forces approximately 200 kilometers north of Niger's capital, Niamey.
Pentagon officials say there are about 800 U.S. troops in Niger in an operation underway for five years against the Boko Haram militant group and other terrorist organizations.
Press Secretary Sanders said Wednesday that the deaths of four U.S. soldiers would not weaken Washington's resolve.
“We want to continue to work with our coalition forces to completely destroy and defeat ISIS right now. That's the priority and that's the focus, and that's what we're going to continue to be focused on at this time,” she said.