As questions about his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico started to mount, President Trump took up a new cause on Twitter: Opposition to the protests taking place before NFL games. He keeps coming back to that issue, time and again, clearly both because he believes that the protests are inappropriate and because he’s seen that it’s effective at whipping up support from his base.
Over time, though, the Trump administration’s narrative about those protests got distilled down into something fairly distant from the protesters’ intent. The point of the protests was to draw attention to systemic racism and law enforcement behavior in the United States. Trump and Vice President Pence, though, repeatedly suggested it was about disrespect for the flag and, more specifically, for the military.
The rationale for this reframing of the protests is pretty clear. A protest against police killing unarmed black men is a complicated and nuanced thing. A protest against the flag (or “Flag,” in Trump’s preferred capitalization) and against the military is a political winner. People have enormous respect for the military and America’s servicemembers — far more than they have for most politicians and certainly Trump. Last year, Pew Research found that the military was one of the most trusted groups of civic leaders in the country — especially among older Americans and Republicans. So by making the question “Are you for or against our troops?” it’s much easier for Trump to get people to take his side, especially among his base.
As it turns out, this would actually be the month’s less-egregious attempt to leverage the military for Trump’s political ends.
This week has devolved into five days of fighting over what is normally a deeply uncontroversial issue: respect for those who gave their lives in service to the country. Trump himself kicked off the tension on Monday, when he replied to a question about four soldiers killed in Niger by suggesting that his failure to have addressed the subject previously (the deaths happened more than two weeks ago) was ameliorated by his going above and beyond to call the families of those killed — something other presidents didn’t do. In short order, it was pointed out that past presidents had done so.
That turns out to have been a minor misstep. The big misstep was to draw a great deal of attention to those four calls and to the ones that he hadn’t made earlier in his presidency. So when a member of Congress relayed that the family of one of the four men killed in Niger found Trump’s call to have been offensive, the situation was already primed to explode. It did.
On Thursday, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly excoriated the Congress member who’d raised the issue, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), calling her an “empty barrel” and saying that she’d disgraced herself with comments at the opening of a new FBI building in her home state. Kelly — speaking during the daily news briefing — suggested that Wilson had claimed undue credit for her role in the project, a comment that he said left him “stunned.”
Wilson didn’t say what Kelly claimed, though, as footage from the event later revealed. Nor was her initial articulation of what Trump said on that call to the soldier’s family ever rebutted, even though Trump insisted on Twitter that it had been.
When Kelly spoke to the press on Thursday, he leveraged the authority of a job he’d held before serving in the Trump administration. A former Marine Corps general, Kelly spoke about how families are informed about the death of a loved one in intimate detail. He then did something unusual, opening up the floor for questions first to those members of the media who either had family members who’d been killed in combat or who knew someone who had.
On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders took the idea that certain standards should apply to asking Kelly questions one step further.
Asked if Kelly could come to the briefing room to address the inaccuracies of his description of Wilson’s comments at the FBI opening, Sanders said, “If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
As of now, Kelly is not first-and-foremost a Marine general. He is the White House chief of staff who was brought out to the daily news briefing to provide cover for how Trump handled a phone call to the family of a dead soldier and who then proceeded to disparage a member of Congress while telling an untrue story about her. There is no sense in which it is inappropriate to ask Kelly questions about his comments simply because he used to serve in the military, any more than it would be inappropriate to ask those same questions of his predecessor in the chief of staff role, Reince Priebus.
For that matter, even if Kelly were still a general, it’s the media’s job to ask questions. Reporters often ask generals probing and challenging questions, and generals generally expect and answer them. On the campaign trail, Trump himself regularly questioned what active-service generals were doing, and on more than one occasion suggested that most of them should be fired.
What Sanders is doing is not subtle. She understands that this week has been very bad for the White House and that Kelly, called in to clean up the mess, created a new mess of his own. So the White House once again would like to cloak itself in the military as a defensive measure, implying that criticism of them is actually a disparagement of those who serve our country — just as Trump implies that protests at NFL games are actually protests against our troops.
That this keeps coming up is a function of how embattled Trump feels. His handling of Puerto Rico was already earning him fervent criticism; the week’s snowballing series of events putting him on the other side of grieving military families is another level entirely. Trump’s surrounded himself with military leaders in his administration, in part because he, too, has enormous respect for people who’ve served in those positions. But now he and his team clearly see another advantage to that: turning a question posed to a civilian leader, the chief of staff, into a measure of disrespect against our armed forces.
Sanders’s move is disrespectful, dishonest and dangerous. It suggests that some people who serve the country are above fair criticism and the need to be held accountable and, more egregiously, that those they serve should enjoy that same privilege. Trump’s never shown himself to be one to embrace criticism. But sliding former military officials in to take the heat in his stead or forcing the military to align with him on a political cause is a remarkably low move.