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Trump fails to act 'presidential' in phone call with grieving widow: Westwood

When he’s sought to behave with the grace and dignity of a president, he’s often fallen short in the eyes of many Americans, writes Rosemary Westwood.

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House.

AP

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump called the grieving widow of American soldier Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed in Niger under circumstances that remain murky, and whipped up yet another self-made political storm.

The soldier’s mother, who heard the call, said Trump “did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband."

Democratic congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson, who also heard the call, said Trump made the widow cry, told her her husband — an African American from Florida — “knew what he was signing up for,” and left the widow with the impression that Trump couldn’t even remember her husband’s name.

Consoling the families of fallen soldiers is not a tangential task of the modern president. It has become an essential part of the commander-in-chief’s job, one that, while no doubt emotionally challenging, is also fairly straightforward. It requires offering solace, but also humbling yourself in face of that loss.

Trump, apparently, had trouble with that. It turns out an unwritten expectation meant to convey the seriousness of a loss and the nation’s gratitude is only as sincere and grateful as the speaker.

Last winter, during the transition, many wondered if the prestige and dignity of the office of the President of the United States would elevate the man elected to it — a man who’s campaign made him out to be a maverick, an anti-president, and thus somehow perfect for the job.

But Trump, we can now safely say, has not become more “presidential,” a term I take to mean measured, dignified, restrained, and careful. Instead, being presidential has become more Trump.

When he’s sought to behave with the grace and dignity of that title, he’s often fallen short in the eyes of many Americans. And any time he’s sought to use the trappings of the presidency as a tool to confer greater respect upon himself, he’s only succeeded in debasing those tools.

Thus, he managed to insult a widow and turn the phone call into a contest between Trump and past presidents after he compared his treatment of families of fallen soldiers to that of Barack Obama.

Take, as another example, the White House Rose Garden. What Vanity Fair recently deemed “the most famous garden in politics,” and an “American symbol” used to welcome heads of state, royalty and the Pope, has, under Trump, become theatre of a less distinguished kind. This week, he used it not to welcome foreign dignitaries or announce substantive policy, but to address rumours of infighting with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — essentially, to deal with gossip. The effect was not, as Trump may have hoped, to make the press conference more respectable, but to make the use of the Rose Garden utterly pedestrian.

And then there’s Puerto Rico. Earlier this month, in passing out aid to suffering Puerto Ricans — over 450 of whom have now died from Hurricane Maria, 80 per cent of whom lack electricity, and some, including orphans, lack drinking water — he turned a somber task into a carnival, tossing paper towels to a crowd of people like they were party favours and telling Puerto Ricans they didn’t need flashlights.

He may have taken on the mantel of president, but Trump has a powerful image all his own, one forged in New York real estate tabloid gossip and as a melodramatic boss on T.V.

It turns out, the oval office is no match for his personal brand. Even when he wants it to be.

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