Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

Trump's war on the media has a new general: John Kelly

October 20, 2017 at 2:02 PM

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White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Oct. 19 encouraged the White House press corps to think about the “tens of thousands of American kids” serving in uniform. (Reuters)

Before his address to reporters on Thursday, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was often portrayed in the media as President Trump's better angel.

Things already are changing after the retired Marine general delivered a briefing-room performance in which he displayed a Trump-like disregard of key facts and deemed unworthy of his attention any journalist who has not been personally touched by the death of a soldier.

Casting Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) as an “empty barrel” whose recent criticism of the president is purely political, Kelly falsely claimed that the congresswoman took credit in a 2015 speech for securing federal funding to build an FBI office in Miami. Video of the speech posted on Friday by the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale shows that Wilson praised her Republican colleagues for fast-tracking a bill she sponsored, which named the facility in honor of two FBI agents killed in action.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Kelly said he was “willing to take a question or two.” But, first, he conducted a poll.

“Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling?” he asked. None of the journalists in the room raised a hand.

Kelly lowered the bar. “Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling?” he asked. A bunch of hands went up, including Brian Karem's.

“Okay, you get the question,” Kelly said to Karem, executive editor of the Sentinel newspapers in Maryland.

Keep in mind that the fundamental issue at hand was Trump's honesty. Was he correct when he said on Monday that “if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls” to the families of fallen soldiers? Was Trump telling the truth when he disputed Wilson's account of a call he placed to the widow of Army Sgt. La David T. Johnson?

These were the questions Kelly was dispatched by the White House to answer. And he did. He said he was the one who told Trump that presidents always send letters to Gold Star families but call only sometimes. He said that Trump did, in fact, tell Johnson's widow that Johnson knew what he signed up for, as Wilson claimed, but insisted that Trump meant to express his admiration of the soldier's brave service in the face of known danger.

On these points, Kelly's defense of Trump was informative. However, there is no practical justification for his determination that only reporters who have felt the pain of a soldier's death were qualified to participate in the Q&A;.

You can't fact-check the president unless someone close to you has died in combat? That's an absurd standard.

Kelly's clear aim was to present the White House press corps as out of touch — a classic Trump tactic that he executed very effectively.

Serious and seemingly close to tears, at times, Kelly was about as different from Trump as one could imagine, in style. In substance, however, his remarks were not those of an adviser who respects the media and tries to rein in the president's “fake news” attacks. They were the words of an aide who shares Trump's belief that reporters need to be put in their place and fed misleading political spin.


Callum Borchers covered the intersection of politics and media. He left The Washington Post in June 2018. He joined The Post in 2015 from the Boston Globe, where his beats included national politics, technology and the business of sports. He is a former editor of Citizen's News in Naugatuck, Conn.

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