President Donald Trump has denied making insensitive comments to the wife of an American soldier killed in Niger, saying he has proof a Florida lawmaker "fabricated" a story saying the president told the soldier's widow that her husband "knew what he signed up for."
A Florida congresswoman who made the charge has rejected the president's statement, and says she has proof that her story is accurate.
Sergeant La David Johnson was among four U.S. soldiers killed two weeks ago near the Niger-Mali border in an ambush that U.S. officials believe was carried out by IS-affiliated fighters.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who represents the district where Johnson's family lives, said she was listening in on the call Trump made to Johnson's widow, Myeshia, while family members were in a limousine en route to an airport to meet the soldier's body.
Speaking to MSNBC, Wilson said Trump "was almost like joking," during the conversation, which was on speaker in the car.
"He said, 'Well, I guess you know,' something to the effect that he knew what he was getting into when he signed up, but I guess it hurts anyway,'" Wilson explained to MSNBC.
"You know, just matter-of-factly, that this is what happens. Anyone who is signing up for military duty is signing up to die. That's the way we interpreted it. It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid," Wilson said.
Sergeant Johnson's mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, told The Washington Post that she was also in the car during the call and that "President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband."
Trump responded to Wilson's allegations early Wednesday, tweeting that she had "totally fabricated" what he had said.
Later, as he began a meeting with members of a senate committee, Trump again rejected the family's version of the phone call, and indicated that Wilson was retracting her statement.
"I didn't say what that congresswoman said; didn't say it all. She knows it. And she now is not saying it," Trump replied to a reporter's question. "I had a very nice conversation with the woman, with the wife who was, sounded like a lovely woman. Did not say what the congresswoman said, and most people aren't too surprised to hear that."
As the war of words raged on cable news networks Wednesday, Wilson fired back with a Twitter post of her own, saying she stood by her account of events.
In a separate interview with CNN, the lawmaker said, "I have proof, too. This man is a sick man."
Trump's handling of the deaths of U.S. service men and women was raised at a Rose Garden news conference Monday, when he was asked by a reporter about why he had not contacted the families of the four killed in Niger.
In his answer, Trump said he had written letters and would call the relatives, but then added that generals serving in his administration had told him some previous presidents, including Barack Obama, had not always personally contacted families of fallen American soldiers.
That claim sparked outrage and sharp rebukes from former members of Obama's staff. Alyssa Mastromonaco, who served as Obama's deputy chief of staff, described Trump as "a deranged animal" and uttered an expletive in calling his comment a "lie."
U.S. military officials have ordered a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the ambush that killed Johnson and three other members of an elite airborne Army unit that was assisting local forces approximately 200 kilometers north of Niger's capital, Niamey.
Pentagon officials say there are about 800 U.S. troops in Niger in an operation under way for five years against the Boko Haram militant group and other terrorist organizations.
Niger is a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism. Under former president Obama, the United States built drone bases in Niamey, and the northern town of Agadez.
VOA's Wayne Lee contributed to this report.