President Trump had to have the last word. He always does. On Thursday evening, after two days of controversy surrounding his call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson and the remarkable appearance by Gold Star father and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, felt compelled to tweet: “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!” Just about everything in the tweet was false, so let’s start from the top.
Trump, after being nagged by the media as to why he hadn’t promptly sent condolences to four military families who lost sons in Niger, claimed that other presidents didn’t call Gold Star families (untrue) and dragged Kelly into it, saying Barack Obama never called Kelly. (True but incomplete, since Kelly sat at Michelle Obama’s table at an event the former president hosted in honor of Gold Star families.)
Only after that scene did Trump finally decide to call Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, who was in a car with Johnson’s mother and family friend Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). She put the phone on speaker. According to Wilson, Johnson’s widow, Johnson’s mother and even Kelly (who said he had given Trump the line), Trump told Johnson her husband knew what he was getting into when he signed up. (Trump came across as callous delivering the line, whereas in Kelly’s telling it was moving and reverential.)
Wilson went public to berate the president and castigate him for making Johnson’s wife cry. When cornered, Trump does what he always does: Lie. He denied saying “this is what he signed up for” to Johnson. He also claimed he had proof he didn’t say it. That was apparently untrue also.
For another day, controversy swirled and the White House was obviously getting nervous that the president was starting to look inhuman, more so than usual. So the White House did what it now finds useful, sending out the only White House staffer who has a shred of credibility, Kelly. Kelly spoke nobly, recalling with tremendous emotion his own experience learning of his son’s death, and solemnly related the process for notifying families.
However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Kelly then went after Wilson with a vengeance. He didn’t say she lied; to the contrary, he said Trump had delivered the line Kelly had recommended. Rather, he skewered Wilson for politicizing the call (he was stunned, he repeated) and then falsely accused her of bragging at a ceremony dedicating an FBI building to two slain officers that she had gotten the money for the building. That accusation was apparently untrue as well, not to mention irrelevant. The Miami Herald reported:
Kelly criticized Democratic U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson for claiming “she got the money” for the new building during the 2015 ceremony while he and others in the audience were focused on the heroism of agents Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, killed during a 1986 shootout with bank robbers south of Miami.
Thursday night, Wilson said Kelly got the story flat-out wrong. In fact, she said Washington approved the money before she was even in Congress. The legislation she sponsored named the building after Grogan and Dove, a law enacted just days before the ceremony.
Kelly then went into a weird soliloquy:
It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore, as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life was sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.
Women were “sacred”? (I’m unaware that women were once immune from sexual harassment in the workplace, unless, of course, Kelly is recalling when women generally weren’t allowed to work outside the house.) Some observers thought Kelly was slyly jabbing at Trump for attacking the Khans, another Gold Star family, or for Trump’s own history of alleged sexual harassment and abuse. It frankly sounded to me as though he was criticizing the Khans for weighing in on Hillary Clinton’s behalf. The spiel sounded like a campaign riff directed at members of the nostalgic Trump base, who imagine some mythical time in our past when women were on a pedestal and religion was a more dominant factor in public life.
And that is what brought us to Trump’s tweet Thursday night.
If you’ve decided after revisiting all of this that everyone, with the exception of the heroic Sgt. Johnson, his widow and his mother, looks shabby, you’re not alone. Trump apparently was trying to be nice but made the widow cry in his original call. Rather than apologize and move on, he spent two days lying, dragging others into the mess and ultimately distracting attention away from the slain serviceman and three others killed in Niger.
Kelly allowed himself to be used as a prop, simultaneously drawing on sympathy for his loss of a son and opportunistically spitting political venom at Wilson. (The Post reported, “The appearance was an attempt to tamp down a self-created and ballooning controversy over Trump’s contacts with the families of fallen soldiers.”) He didn’t express remorse for any upset suffered by Johnson’s wife or other family members because of the awkward call.
As for Wilson, she was telling the truth about the call, but acting more than a little too gleeful in ratting out the president when attention should have been on the Gold Star families.
Sometimes you just want the whole lot of them to go away.
We’ve grown sadly accustomed to watching Trump behave badly, punching “down” at those who call him out. The focus must always be on him, the perpetual victim.
Kelly’s conduct was a sad revelation, however, and a reminder that while he looks upon himself as serving the country (and he is), he is also enabling a dishonest, morally detestable politician. As The Post reported: “There was evident irony in Kelly’s making that particular point in defense of Trump, whose presidential campaign last year was marked by name-calling, harsh rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans and other minorities, and allegations of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women.” I would call it hypocrisy, not irony. He’s after all standing next to and by someone who truly treats nothing — people, the truth, democracy — as “sacred.” He’s using his reservoir of honor and credibility to shield a president who is lacking both.
Moreover, Kelly’s presence brings us back to the unprecedented number of military-men-turned-civilian-counselors in this administration. Stocking an administration with generals diminishes the military (by forcing revered figures to play politics) and undermines the concept of civilian control, especially in an administration in which the ex-military and military advisers are taking “adult day care” shifts to mind an unfit president, as Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) memorably said.
Our men and women placing themselves in harm’s way and their families deserve better than the Trump crowd. The country deserves honest civilian leaders. Unfortunately, like all Americans, our fighting men and women are stuck with Trump — and his reckless saber-rattling — for the time being.