White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Oct. 19 criticized Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) for comments she made at an FBI building dedication in 2015. (Reuters)

THE MORNING PLUM:

President Trump appears unable to opt for the higher moral ground when the gutter beckons so invitingly, and so it is that his battle over his response to the death of La David Johnson, one of four U.S. service members gunned down in Niger, has now entered its fourth day. Trump tweeted:

In so doing, Trump slathered additional layers of ugliness and dishonesty on top of comments by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who yesterday told reporters that “it stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation,” adding: “I thought at least that was sacred.” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) responded this morning on CNN, denouncing Kelly for calling her an “empty barrel,” which is a way of calling her a showboat.

But instead of treating this as mere theater of high dudgeon, there is actually a way to at least try to evaluate who is right in this situation. As a start, we can look at the process by which these presidential calls to the families of fallen soldiers come together.

Here’s the short version: It is not unusual for multiple people to be listening in on calls to the families of the fallen. The living next of kin generally are deferred to when it comes to who listens in, and it is not that unusual for the president to be placed on speakerphones.

How this process works

After speaking to a former special assistant to Barack Obama during his second term, here’s my preliminary understanding of how this works. After the Pentagon has finished processing all the paperwork that attends the death of a service member, it sends the details of the death on to the White House Military Office (WHMO), which serves as the liaison between the Defense Department and the White House, and has a direct line to the president. A senior adviser to the president generally makes recommendations about which families to call, and someone in the WHMO contacts the living next of kin to ask whether that person would like to hear from the president.

If so, the WHMO tells the next of kin in which time window the president will be calling. The call is then placed to the person by a WHMO aide, who informs the person that the president is on the line, and then patches the president through. From there, how that call is received is generally left up to that person.

“These are condolence calls to the family of a fallen soldier,” the special assistant to Obama told me. “It’s the prerogative of the family as to how they handle these calls, whether it’s on speaker, or one-on-one. These are grieving families. The call is intended to console them. Putting dos and don’ts on them would not serve that purpose.”

“Certainly it was not uncommon that entire families want to hear the consoling words of the commander in chief,” the Obama special assistant told me. “It wouldn’t be unusual for the next-of-kin to place the president on speakerphone so that the entire grieving family can partake in the experience.”

President Trump is facing criticism for failing to mention the death of U.S. soldiers in Niger for 12 days. Here is what happens after a U.S. military member is killed while serving overseas. (The Washington Post)

Now, we don’t know how the Trump White House handles this process. But it seems likely that the method is similar. It should also be noted that Kelly and Trump are objecting to the fact that a member of Congress heard the call. But in this case, Wilson has said she mentored the slain young man through a program she founded, so she seemed to be honorary family. And regardless, how to receive this call would clearly be an intensely personal matter for the grieving next of kin to decide.

Kelly didn’t have to go this far

It is perhaps somewhat understandable that the White House would be upset that Wilson talked to the press about the specifics of the call, particularly since she characterized Trump’s behavior as insensitive. But Kelly did not even deny Wilson’s basic claim, i.e., that Trump said some variation of “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.” Kelly simply put a different spin on this by arguing that La David Johnson died in service of the profession and ideals to which he had committed his life.

That’s fine. And there is no question that Kelly spoke powerfully to the experience of losing loved ones (he lost a son) in combat. But it’s not clear why Kelly had to go out of his way to suggest that the congresswoman was exploiting Johnson’s death, suggesting for good measure that he was so angry that he walked among the graves of fallen soldiers to cool down, and then launching into a sermon about how basic decency and traditional values are dead. “When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,” Kelly said, adding that “women were sacred.”

It’s odd to invoke the “sacredness” of women while defending Trump, whom multiple women have accused of sexual assault and who has repeatedly and very publicly denigrated women in horrifying ways, but Kelly is of course not responsible for Trump’s actions. What is worse is the sleight of hand Kelly used to align Trump culturally and morally with the military and the families of the fallen while casting the congresswoman as belonging to a kind of cultural category that, in the minds of people of Kelly’s generation, which came of age during the country’s searing divisions over Vietnam, is characterized by empty, valueless showboating and doesn’t have sufficient respect for the military and the ultimate sacrifice made by fallen soldiers and their loved ones.

Whatever the truth about Wilson’s motives, the decision as to who listened in on the call was a personal one made by the next of kin. And Kelly should respect that. Instead, he helped Trump play the aggrieved party. But in this case, Trump apparently botched the call to a family. He should have known that he might be placed on speakerphone. (When you were a “kid growing up,” surely men took responsibility for their actions, right, John?) Trump and the White House could simply have let this die down or even apologized to the family members and treated their feelings as more important than Trump’s personal pique or political fortunes. Yes, this might mean taking a few lumps that the White House considered unfair, without retaliating. So what? Is it really that awful or unthinkable for Trump to lose a round? Yet the White House chose not to show restraint — even though Kelly understands as well as or better than anyone else what the family is going through.

* GOP NO LONGER CARES ABOUT DEFICIT: The Senate last night passed a budget resolution that is the first step toward a massive tax cut that could balloon the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years, and The Post notes:

Senate Republicans have officially moved the party far away from its promised goal of ensuring that the tax plan would not add to the deficit. The White House and House Republicans had vowed that the tax cuts would be offset with new revenue from the elimination of certain deductions, but that is no longer the GOP’s goal. Instead, they have abandoned longstanding party orthodoxy of deficit reduction and are seeking a political win after months of frustration on Capitol Hill.

But “deficit reduction” is not the right way to describe GOP orthodoxy. Here’s a better definition: Deficits only matter when the president is a Democrat.

* OBAMA RALLIES DEMOCRATS IN VIRGINIA: Barack Obama stumped last night for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam and tried to frame the contest this way:

“We need you to take this seriously. Our democracy is at stake … Elections matter. Voting matters. You can’t take anything for granted. You can’t sit this one out. … The question now, at a time when our politics just seems so divided, and so angry, and so nasty, is whether we can … support and embrace somebody who wants to bring people together.”

The stakes are high. GOP candidate Ed Gillespie has gone full Trumpist, making this a test: Will the race-baiting sufficiently energize Democrats, or will they continue to win for Republicans?

* TRUMP ENDORSES REPUBLICANS IN BANNON’S CROSS HAIRS: Politico reports that Trump has personally called three GOP senators to pledge support for them against primary challengers promoted by Stephen K. Bannon:

Trump dialed GOP Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, according to five people familiar with the calls. He promised to help the three senators against any insurgent challengers, one of these people said, and said he hoped they would be reelected. The calls are expected to eventually be followed by formal endorsements, GOP senators said. 

This is puzzling. I thought Bannon was backing all of these primary challengers because they would be more faithful to the “Trump agenda” than the incumbents are. Maybe that was a scam?

* A TIMELINE OF TRUMP’S RESPONSE TO KILLINGS: Trump’s ongoing battle over slain soldier La David Johnson has shed light on his response to the killing of the U.S. soldiers in Niger. CNN offers an exhaustive timeline of Trump’s actions. Summary:

Trump first weighed in on the attack 12 days after the soldiers were ambushed … The President, a very prolific Twitter user, never tweeted about the attack — the deadliest US military exchange of his presidency. In the meantime, Trump used his preferred social media platform to lambast fellow Republicans, the NFL and the media. And on Saturday, October 7, when the body of Sgt. La David T. Johnson was returned to the United States, the President was golfing.

And late last night, Trump tweeted again, blasting the congresswoman who overheard the exchange between Trump and the war widow as “wacky.”

* QUESTIONS MOUNT IN CONGRESS OVER DEATHS: The Associated Press reports that members of Congress are increasingly pressing for answers about the Niger killings:

Among the unresolved inquiries: Why were the Americans apparently caught by surprise? Why did it take two additional days to recover one of the four bodies after the shooting stopped? Was the Islamic State responsible? … contract aircraft flew out the bodies of three Americans shortly after the firefight. Local Nigeriens found Johnson’s body and returned it Oct. 6. It’s not clear why Johnson was not found with the three others Oct. 4.

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is threatening subpoenas to force the administration to be more forthcoming, which sets up another front for him to battle with Trump.

* WILL TRUMP’S EGO LEAD HIM TO BREAK UP NAFTA? Paul Krugman argues that it really does look as though Trump might pull out of NAFTA, because his unreasonable demands aren’t being met in negotiations over its future:

We now live in a North American economy built around the reality of free trade. … Many industrial plants were built precisely to take advantage of our economic integration, buying from or selling to other industrial plants across the borders. As a result, breaking up or degrading Nafta would have the same disruptive effects that came from Nafta’s creation: Plants would close, jobs would disappear, communities would lose their livelihoods.

All of this flows back to the fact that Trump, having failed to produce anything he can call a major accomplishment, is desperate to create the impression of action, regardless of the details.

* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, GOP-EXISTENTIAL-CRISIS EDITION: This quote, from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), on what happens if Republicans ultimately fail to pass tax reform, is a keeper:

“That will be the end of us as a party,” he said, “because if you’re a Republican and you don’t want to simplify the tax code and cut taxes, what good are you to anybody?”

If you’re a Republican, and you don’t want to enact massive tax cuts for the rich, what good are you to anybody? Good question.