Donald Trump
Credit: White House/Flickr

A lot of attention is being paid to the president’s call to a Gold Star widow yesterday, in which he reportedly said: “He knew what he signed up for.”

Donald Trump has denied it, but the fallen solder’s mother has confirmed that the president’s remarks were emotionally barren. Less attention, however, is being paid to rest of his statement: “I guess it still hurt.”

Why does this matter?

For one thing, the president has not denied the second half of that statement. For another, it offers a window into his mind, a look at the man’s character that goes beyond his damnable compounding of the deep original hurt of losing a life partner to the demands of duty. In particular, I want to home in on the words “I guess.”

Try imaging any commander in chief choosing to say the words “I guess” to a woman six months pregnant with two small kids welcoming her dead husband after he and others were ambushed.

You can’t. Every president before Donald Trump has ably performed this fundamental function of the office of the presidency—honoring the families of the men and women who died serving our country.

But Trump is too incompetent for that.

He didn’t say “I know” the pain, that “I feel” the sickness of losing a loved one, or that “I honor” U.S. Army Sgt. La David Johnson’s death or that “I hope” his widow can take a small measure of comfort in knowing his government is forever grateful for his sacrifice.


Instead, he said “I guess.” As if he’s never done this before. As if he doesn’t have the skills needed. As if he wouldn’t be doing this if not for others forcing him. Utterly, preternaturally, offensively incompetent. Which brings me back to how this all started.

But first, here’s the AP.

Trump said in a news conference he had written letters to the families of four soldiers killed in an Oct. 4 ambush in Niger and planned to call them, crediting himself with taking extra steps in honoring the dead properly. “Most of them didn’t make calls,” he said of his predecessors. He said it’s possible that Obama “did sometimes” but “other presidents did not call.”

That was Monday.

On Tuesday, in a vain attempt to back up Trump’s statement, someone at the White House told reporters that President Barack Obama had not paid proper respect to the family of Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, who had been killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Kelly’s father is White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

The AP went through White House logs.

White House visitor records show Kelly attended a breakfast Obama hosted for Gold Star families six months after his son died. A person familiar with the breakfast—speaking on condition of anonymity because the event was private—said the Kelly family sat at Michelle Obama’s table.
Moreover, Trump did not call the people he said he called.

Why did he lie? The simplest explanation is best.

President Trump is incompetent. He is so incompetent that he was asked to explain why so much time had passed without honoring the families of four soldiers killed in Niger. He is so incompetent that he was caught unaware of his failure to perform the most fundamental function of the office of the presidency, and in the moment of realizing that he failed, he reacted by crediting himself for doing what he had only just realized he should have done.

Indeed, Trump must know.

That’s why he works hard to deflect attention away from his incompetence—by giving himself credit for something that should have already been done and by elevating himself above others while at the same time blaming others, i.e. Obama, for things they never did.

“Competence” comes from the Latin word “competentia,” which can mean “conjunction,” “correspondence,” “agreement,” or “symmetry.” When the president is competent, he is in “agreement” with the fundamental functions his office demands and that the president agreed to perform in swearing a solemn oath.

When it comes to honoring the dead, that describes every president before Trump.

John Stoehr

Follow John on Twitter @johnastoehr . John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer. This piece originally appeared in The Editorial Board.