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How the grief of military families crossed into politics

President Trump continues to face criticism for his handling of condolence calls to Gold Star families. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR sit down with Judy Woodruff to discuss the unusual feud between the president and the loved ones of a Special Forces soldier killed in Niger, as well as Trump’s assurances that the GOP tax reform plan won’t touch 401Ks.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn back now to the story of those U.S. service members who were killed in action in Niger more than two weeks ago.

    Normally, stories like this don’t fall into the political realm. But even today, the president continues to face criticism over his handling of condolence calls.

    For more on this and other issues on the horizon, we turn to our Politics Monday regulars, Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report and Tamara Keith of NPR.

    Welcome to you both. It is Politics Monday.

    So, as we said, the lead story, this terrible thing that happened in Niger with the four American soldiers who died. The offshoot of that story that we’re also talking about, Tam is President Trump’s — the way he has handled it.

    He was asked about whether he had — why he hadn’t spoken about it this time last week. And then that has snowballed, if you will, into — made a phone call to the widow. There has been a dispute about that now.

    He — she today said that she thought the president bungled her husband’s name. He then tweeted that he didn’t.

    This is not like anything we have seen before, is it?

  • Tamara Keith:

    No, certainly not that I have seen before.

    I mean, this is — this is not how would you expect a president to handle a situation like this. The way you would expect it, I mean, it never would have gotten this far. But if it did get this far, you would, in theory, expect a president to say, my gosh, I’m mortified that the widow feels this way, and I feel terrible about it, I’m sorry that it was misunderstood, and then go on to praise the service of La David Johnson.

    That is not what has happened thus far.

  • Amy Walter:

    Yes, there was a time, Judy, when, politically speaking, you would never politicize the death of a service member, and the idea of having a back and forth where you are questioning a Gold Star family about the way that they saw this issue would never have been acceptable.

    It’s a little bit like the customer’s always right. Right? The grieving family is always right in this case.

    And that has got thrown out the window, the normal rules and the normal boundaries that we put on what candidates can and can’t do, when during the course of the campaign President Trump got into a very personal fight with Khizr Khan, who, of course, was a Gold Star father, and his family.

    And once we cross that bridge, there is just no coming back from that. And this is the president’s style. It has been consistent.

    The one thing that is different, though, is that, after that last tweet you mentioned where the president said this is my recollection of events, then the White House kind of went back into more traditional mode. The president had a Rose Garden press conference, didn’t take questions, so that we wouldn’t see any more engagement on this.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Unlike last week.

  • Amy Walter:

    Unlike last week.

    And then, to your issue that you brought up, the story that you started with today with General Dunford, they went and said, we really have to start talking about what happened in Niger. Let’s go back to what the core issues are, which is, what happened there, how did these men die?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then we heard General Dunford with the full-throated news conference. He said, I’m going to answer every question that we can.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Meanwhile, Sarah Sanders didn’t hold a press briefing today.

    And there wasn’t just that Rose Garden. There were two other opportunities where reporters shouted questions to the president, and he didn’t respond.

  • Judy Woodruff:, meantime, we have this, I guess you could say, offshoot of all this, and this also dates back to the campaign when the president was critical of John McCain and said that:

    And I don’t like people who have been captured.

  • Amy Walter:

    That’s right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A reference to McCain being a POW.

    So, today, John McCain has given an interview where he reminded everybody about the president’s campaign through this comment. Let’s listen.

  • Sen. John Mccain, R-ariz.:

    What I cared about was when he was talking about other prisoners of war, and there is an individual that lives in Phoenix, and he’s 92. And he weighed 110 pounds when he got out of a German prison camp.

    And he said to me. He said, “Senator McCain, why does the president not like me?” You know, that’s hard to explain to a 92-year-old man.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that’s painful.

  • Tamara Keith: 

    Yes, and it’s personally painful to Senator McCain, who was a prisoner of war and knows other guys and is talking about this.

    He was actually sort of dodging another question about a remark that he had made on C-SPAN where he referenced bone spurs, which President Trump got some deferrals from serving in Vietnam because of bone spurs.

    And it wasn’t a direct criticism. McCain didn’t say directly, but it was more of a commentary about sort of the division between people with means and people without means and how our military service — how people are so disconnected from U.S. military service.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it doesn’t look like the McCain-Trump feud…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Amy Walter:

    Is getting better at any time soon, especially when we are talking about something like Americans killed in action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just want to raise one other thing, because, believe it or not, there are other things happening right now.

  • Amy Walter:

    There are.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that is tax reform.

    Quickly, Amy, Republicans have been talking about wanting to get this done, they’re going to get this done. The White House wants to get it done. But then the president this morning tweeted, but, no, whatever you hear about they are touching 401(k)s, that is not going to happen.

    Do you think Republicans were surprised to see this?

  • Amy Walter:

    Well, this, remember, we don’t have a tax plan yet. We have seen nothing official. So, this is a little bit like flying a plane and building it all at the same time. There are pieces that are getting added and subtracted constantly through this process.

    The challenge for Republicans — and this happened with them with health care as well — is that just when they think they have got things sort of buttoned down, the president will send a tweet out that maybe they didn’t expect, maybe they did.

    Lamar Alexander, the senator who is trying to — Republican senator who is trying to cobble together a compromise on health care, has gotten undercut by these tweets or off-the-cuff statements the president has made.

    The president of the United States is the leader of his party, and he needs to have a leadership role in telling folks where to go. And right now, it’s really unclear where that is going to be. And I think this is the challenge for Republicans. They know they want to get this done, but will the president be united in their messaging?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think the White House is aware of this dynamic?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tamara Keith:

    I think they are.

    But the president — the president’s tweets speak for themselves, I think, is what they usually say. The president — this is sort of a classic — at least it seemed to be a classic trial balloon in Washington world, where something shows up in the papers, and it’s an idea that maybe some people don’t like and some people do.

    And so it shows up. Well, the president got wind of it and made it clear that he didn’t like that. And the reality is, the president is trying to pitch this as a middle-class tax cut.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Tamara Keith: 

    There are a lot of reasons why it may not ultimately be a middle-class tax cut. But talking about people’s 401(k)s really undercuts the idea of a middle-class tax cut.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it was a little bit of a segue.

    We will continue to watch tax reform, health care, and everything else that is going on.

    Amy Walter, Tamara Keith, Politics Monday, thank you both.

  • Amy Walter:

    You’re welcome.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You’re welcome.

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