By Bernie Woodall
, (Reuters) - The widow of a U.S. Army sergeant killed in Niger this month said on Monday that President Donald Trump had "made me cry even worse" in a condolence telephone call when he said her husband "knew what he signed up for."
Myeshia Johnson's comments in an ABC interview, her first to the media about the call from Trump, fueled a controversy that has raged for a week over how the president has handled consoling relatives of slain service members.
After the interview aired, Trump again defended himself, saying in a Twitter post that his conversation with Johnson had been "very respectful."
In the "Good Morning America" interview, Johnson also said she has been told little about how her husband, Sergeant La David T. Johnson, was killed and has not been allowed to see his body.
La David Johnson was one of four U.S. Army special forces soldiers killed during an Oct. 4 ambush in the West African nation.
Last week, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and friend of Johnson's family, Frederica Wilson, said she listened to the call on speakerphone in a car as she rode with them to receive the late sergeant's body at a Miami airport, and that Trump had upset the relatives.
That drew a rebuke from the president, who dubbed Wilson "wacky" and denied her account. "I didn't say what that congresswoman said," Trump told reporters last week. "I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who ... sounded like a lovely woman."
In Monday's interview, Myeshia Johnson said, "The president said that he (her husband) knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway ... And it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he couldn't remember my husband's name."
In his tweet after the interview aired, Trump said, "I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!"
Johnson said the military has told her little about what happened to her husband and his comrades in Niger, where about 800 U.S. troops are engaged in counter-terrorism operations against an affiliate of the Islamic State militant group.
She also said she was upset she has not been allowed to see his body. "I don't know what's in that box," said of the coffin. "It could be empty for all I know."
Johnson said she did not say anything during the call with the president, adding that afterward, she was "very upset and hurt. It made me cry even worse." Asked what she might now tell Trump, she said she had "nothing to say to him."
MCCAIN SEEKS ANSWERS
Republican U.S. Senator John McCain, a veteran who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Monday that lawmakers want answers about the ambush in Niger.
"We should not be fighting about a brave American who lost his life serving his country. That should not be a topic in America today," he told ABC's "The View" program, adding that his committee needed more information about the incident.
"Unless you learn the lessons, then you're going to repeat them," he said.
In separate interviews on Sunday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer both said they backed McCain's efforts to get more details, and that they had not been aware that the United States had so many military personnel in Niger.
U.S. forces do not have a direct combat role in Niger, but they help its army with intelligence and reconnaissance in the government's efforts to target violent extremist groups.
The current controversy erupted after Trump said a week ago that some of his predecessors as president "didn't do anything" to console the relatives of fallen soldiers. He did not back up the claim and it was shown to be false. [nL2N1MS0M9]
The acrimony generated around his call with Johnson echoed a controversy last year during the presidential campaign, when Trump sparred with Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed while serving in Iraq in 2004.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Frances Kerry)