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Trump presents Medal of Honor amid controversies over his relationship with the military

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump on Monday awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Army Capt. Gary M. Rose for "conspicuous gallantry" during the Vietnam War.
  • The White House ceremony was partially overshadowed by controversies swirling around the president and his relationship with the military.
  • Trump is being forced to defend his handling of calls to slain soldiers' families, his record of deferments during Vietnam and mounting questions about a deadly ambush in Niger.
President Donald Trump delivers remarks in the Diplomatic Room following a shooting that injured a member of Congress and law enforcement officers at the White House June 14, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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President Donald Trump on Monday awarded the Medal of Honor to retired Army Capt. Gary M. Rose for "conspicuous gallantry" during the Vietnam War.

"You've earned the eternal gratitude of the entire American nation. You faced down the evils of Communism. You defended our flag. And you showed the world the unbreakable resolve of the American armed forces," Trump said, addressing both Rose and 10 members of his combat unit who were in attendance at the White House.

Noting that Rose's story has "largely gone untold," Trump recounted how Rose, an Army medic in Laos in 1970, had ignored his own serious injuries in order to deliver lifesaving medical care to more than 50 of his fellow soldiers over four harrowing days under constant enemy fire. Trump called Rose "a true patriot, who always stands strong for God, for family, and for country."

But the White House ceremony was partially overshadowed Monday by controversies swirling around the president and his relationship with the military. Two public feuds, one with the widow of a slain soldier and the other with a celebrated veteran, as well as mounting questions about a deadly mission in North Africa threaten to damage the president's standing among the military forces under his command.

Hours before Trump was scheduled to bestow the Medal of Honor on Rose, the president publicly contradicted the widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, who was one of four special operations soldiers killed in action during an ambush in Niger on Oct. 4. Trump telephoned Johnson's widow, Myeshia Johnson, early last week to offer condolences after the White House came under pressure for having remained silent about the Niger attack for nearly two weeks.

On Monday, Johnson told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the president's call left her distraught and angry because the president had been unable to remember her late husband's name.

"It made me cry, because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn't remember my husband's name," Johnson told host George Stephanopoulos. "The only way [Trump] remembered my husband's name is because he told me he had my husband's report in front of him, and that's when he actually said 'La David.' I heard him stumbling, trying to remember my husband's name and that's what hurt me the most," she said.

Within minutes, Trump issued a rebuttal on Twitter.

Johnson's interview Monday and Trump's subsequent tweet were the latest chapter in a controversy that has roiled the White House for the past week, as presidential aides struggled to defend Trump's version of the call while Trump repeatedly lashed out at a Democratic member of Congress on Twitter.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said Trump told Myeshia Johnson that her husband "knew what he was signing up for, but when it happens, it hurts anyway." Wilson's account of the call was confirmed by Johnson's widow and his mother.

Trump immediately denied having said this, and accused Wilson of having "totally fabricated her account."

As the White House played defense over Trump's handling of calls to the families of fallen soldiers, Trump's draft deferments during the Vietnam War earned fresh criticism from one of the nation's most celebrated combat veterans.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, took a thinly veiled swipe at Trump over his five draft deferments in an interview Sunday with C-SPAN about the Vietnam War.

"One aspect of the conflict, by the way, that I will never ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest-income level of America, and the highest-income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur," McCain said.

In 1968, after having received four educational draft deferments, Trump got a fifth deferment after he produced a doctor's letter stating that he had bone spurs. In 2015, Trump was asked in a news conference which foot had suffered the bone spur. Trump said he couldn't remember. His presidential campaign later said it was both feet.

In addition to the controversies over Trump's phone calls to families and his service record during Vietnam, a third specter loomed over the emotional Medal of Honor ceremony Monday: Unanswered questions about what happened during the ambush in Niger on Oct. 4 that cost four American service members their lives.

As The Atlantic's Siobhan O'Grady writes:

There is deep confusion over exactly what went wrong, including why U.S. troops were traveling in unarmored vehicles, how Johnson was separated from the group, how he died, and why it took so long to find him. As public scrutiny of the incident intensifies, so too do the many stories about what may have taken place. On social platforms like Twitter, people are sharing graphic details about the troops' final, brutal hours. But there's little clarity, and certainly sparse information from public officials about what actually happened.

Following Trump's Medal of Honor ceremony Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford took questions from reporters at the Pentagon regarding the events in Niger. Dunford said the public and the families of the fallen soldiers deserve answers.

The general added that the four U.S. soldiers died after a battle that started on Oct. 4 in a "complex situation," leading to a "difficult firefight."

Reached on Monday, the White House did not immediately respond to questions from CNBC about how the current controversies could impact the president's standing among the troops.

— The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Correction: This article has been revised to correct the spelling of the name of Army Sgt. La David Johnson.