Kelly is no Trump fan, not in the wake of his unceremonious firing and Trump’s derisive assessment. (“He got eaten alive,” Trump said Friday, suggesting Kelly might be a Goldberg source. “He was unable to handle the pressure of this job.")
But does anyone beyond the most reflexive Trump supporter really believe that a career Marine, a four-star general, a Gold Star father, would invent such a story — however it managed to make its way to Goldberg? Goldberg describes Trump’s visit with Kelly to Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2017. They stood at the grave of Kelly’s son Robert, killed at 29 in Afghanistan when he stepped on a landmine leading a platoon of Marines. “Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’” Goldberg writes.
Does anyone believe that Goldberg — an experienced and well-regarded journalist, with a track record of scoops and a deep bench of military sources — would make this up or run it without fully checking? Full disclosure: I’ve known Goldberg for more than 30 years, since he was an intern at The Post, and I have complete confidence in his professionalism. A credibility contest between Trump and Goldberg is no contest at all.
Not to mention: Every damning incident in the story is consistent with what we already know of Trump’s character and attitude toward military service. His avoidance of the Vietnam draft, with seemingly bogus claims of bone spurs. His public derision of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), “I like people who weren’t captured.” His 2016 belittling of a Gold Star father who appeared at the Democratic convention.
So what should we make of Kelly’s silence? Ingrained habits of stoicism and convictions about duties of confidentiality and loyalty to a commander in chief, even this one, seem to be at work here. This is perplexing, to say the least. There are persuasive arguments on the other side about countervailing duties, including to warn the country about the man seeking a second term. But heroes are scarce among those who chose to serve Trump. Kelly’s tenure in “Crazytown,” as Bob Woodward quoted him in describing the Trump White House, included overseeing the implementation of the administration’s cruel policy of separating migrant children from their parents.
Nonetheless, if Kelly’s choice is silence, it is hard to interpret that as anything but tacit confirmation. If Goldberg were telling a false story about Kelly and his son, surely Kelly would offer some correction. Kelly does not often speak publicly of his son’s death, but he has done so in terms that are the compelling opposite of Trump’s transactional worldview.
“When you lose one in combat … in my opinion, there’s a pride that goes with it, that he didn’t have to be there doing what he was doing,” he said in 2016, shortly before his retirement from the military. It is precisely the selfless sacrifice that Trump is incapable of comprehending that provides Kelly with some solace.
Law students learn in their first-year contracts class that silence does not connote acceptance. (Except, of course, when it does; what would law be if not for loopholes?) Yet what may be a correct statement of law is not an accurate reflection of reality. In the Robert Bolt play “A Man for All Seasons,” Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell debate the various forms of silence and its significance — specifically, More’s silence on the legitimacy of Henry VIII’s marriage. Cromwell argues that More’s refusal to speak up “betokened” his disagreement with the king’s action; More, rather duplicitously, that his silence should be taken to indicate consent.
“Is that in fact what the world construes from it?” Cromwell asks him. “Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?”
More responds, “The world must construe according to its wits; this court must construe according to the law.”
And so it is with Kelly. The world must construe his silence according to its wits, and judge Trump accordingly.
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