Making a military widow cry: that is a classic Trump move

Instead of standing on a pedestal, he clambers down into the gutter of Twitter where he can indulge in the pettiest form of politics.

Just when you thought there was nothing left to destroy – no more rules or taboos to break – Donald Trump proved you wrong. After nine long months of bumping along the bottom, our preening president has taken the presidency to a new all-time low.

This week the commander-in-chief has somehow contrived to drive to tears the grieving mother of one of his own special forces. Along the way, he boasted about his own outreach to gold star families, and defamed his predecessors’ record on the same.

All the while he shows no sympathy or urgency about millions of his own citizens struggling for several weeks without food, water and power in Puerto Rico.

Hugging people doesn’t take much skill or sensibility; just a touch of humanity. A real populist finds this kind of thing quite easy. If you want to be loved by the people, it’s a good idea to show a little love to the people in their hour of need. It worked for Evita Peron, Fidel Castro and even the ice-cold British royal family.

George W Bush may have invaded Iraq in America’s worst national security disaster since Vietnam. But he spent many hours visiting with his wounded warriors and grieving families. Barack Obama may have called the same Iraq war stupid and suffered a fractious relationship with the top brass. But he continued the long-standing presidential tradition of investing his time and emotion with the troops and their families.

Not so much Donald Trump. According to the mother of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of four Green Berets killed in action in Niger, Trump managed to “disrespect” her son and his widow, forgot his name, and told them he “knew what he signed up for.” This charming conversation took place while the family was traveling to the airport to receive the body of their beloved son and husband, leaving Johnson’s widow Myeshia in tears.

Naturally Trump has turned his multiple blunders into a political fistfight. He has blamed a Democratic representative traveling with the Johnsons for fabricating the account, telling reporters: “I had a very nice conversation with the woman, the wife, who sounded like a lovely woman.”

The sad thing is he probably thought he was being nice. The even sadder thing is that he still can’t be bothered to remember their name.

You can’t screw things up this spectacularly by chance or human error. It takes a lifetime of effort and habit to be this incompetent, unfeeling and self-defeating. This is a determined effort to distance himself from his fellow Americans, and it is succeeding rather well. It may just be the most successful thing Trump has ever done, even if the rest of humanity considers it an abject failure.

Like all bad habits, it follows a pattern. Trump was remarkably silent about the deaths in Niger, even though he and his fellow Republicans couldn’t stop talking about the US lives lost in the ambush in Benghazi in 2012. When he came under fire for not calling the relatives of the fallen soldiers, Trump said he had written letters which had not yet been mailed. The US Postal Service is obviously not what it used to be.

When that bumbling excuse fell flat, he claimed Obama failed to call gold star families, including his own chief of staff, John Kelly, whose son died in Afghanistan. This claim has been forcefully rejected by Obama’s aides, while Kelly’s associates can recall no such thing.

This kind of behavior might be normal among middle school students whose hormones interfere with their ability to finish their homework on time. Explaining Trump’s actions is altogether more unsettling.

You can’t say there were no warning signs of this kind of weirdness. Trump lashed out at the gold star family of Humayun Khan who died in Iraq in 2004, when they attacked his Muslim travel ban. Naturally Trump went after Khan’s mother for no good reason, claiming she was forbidden from talking.

Launching a personal attack on an emotionally vulnerable citizen without any foundation in fact: the signature Trump move.

Then again, he recently mocked the Spanish accent of the long-suffering US citizens in Puerto Rico, threw paper towels into a San Juan crowd like he was shooting hoops, and threatened to pull out his own government support from the US territory.

You don’t get much more vulnerable than a population struggling to survive with no power, clean water, cooked food, or economy for several weeks.

Most people aspire to the presidency to lead a nation, if not the world. The presidential pedestal puts them in the history books as the head of state of the world’s most powerful nation. Rising above politics as head of state is the best part of the job, and the commander-in-chief role – never mind the comforter-in-chief – is immune from petty politics.

Unless you’re Donald Trump. Instead of leading a nation and the world, he seems determined to divide a nation and the world. Instead of standing on a pedestal, he clambers down into the gutter of Twitter where he can indulge in the pettiest form of politics.

In the case of the gold star families, a phone call from the president is not just a phone call from a president. It’s a phone call from a whole country.

That may be the biggest failure of all for Donald Trump. Senator John McCain, who knows a thing or two about national service, likes to say there is nothing more noble than serving a cause greater than self. Clearly that is a concept that is too big (or too grown-up) for this president, who can think of no cause greater than himself.