John Kelly’s defense of Donald Trump’s handling of a soldier’s death ends in fiasco.
A brief sigh of relief was felt earlier this summer when it was announced that John Kelly would replace Reince Priebus as the White House chief of staff. It was expected that the retired Marine Corps general and former secretary of Homeland Security would be able to moderate the immodest president, Donald Trump. But, gradually, not even Kelly could disguise his exasperations, demonstrated by the image that captured his exquisite discomfort during the president’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September or the recent reports suggesting that he has been feeling “miserable” at his job.
The latest ignoble display that unfolded last week, however, was not only of Trump’s doing but of Kelly’s as well. Trump had already been under scrutiny for failing to call the grieving families of four US soldiers killed in Niger on October 4 and his subsequent dubious claims that his predecessors have also failed to offer condolences during their tenures. “If you look at President [Barack] Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls,” Trump said during an impromptu press conference on October 16. “A lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate.”
The following day, Trump continued the charade, now demanding that the chief of staff be asked whether or not Obama called him when his own son, Robert, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. It is true that Obama never called Kelly’s family, but as The Washington Post later revealed, Trump himself has only called half of the families of slain service members since he came into office.
On the same night, Trump called Myeshia Johnson, the wife of La David Johnson who was killed in the ambush in Niger. Democratic congresswoman of Florida and friend Frederica Wilson was beside Johnson during the call, where she overheard the president make his callous condolence: “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway.”
Kelly, usually one to avoid press briefings, entered the fray on October 19 to deliver his defense of the president and his personal disappointment over the politicization of the deaths of his son and the four soldiers in Niger. Kelly began by relating what happens when a soldier is killed in action and how the families are given the news. He then described how Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joe Dunford notified him when his son was killed. “He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war, “ Kelly said.
Kelly acknowledged that the conversation did take place, only that Johnson’s interpretation of the president’s condolences were incorrect. This contradicted Trump’s tweet later that night in which he claimed that the entire incident never happened at all. “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!” he tweeted.
Later on, Kelly’s excoriation of Wilson began, first attributing her having listened in on the president’s conversation with a broader and upsetting decline in American values. “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, ” he said. Wilson has known and mentored Johnson’s family for decades and, according to CNN, was also a former principal of the same school that Johnson’s father once attended. It was Johnson’s decision to put the call on speakerphone, not Wilson’s. When she ended the call, Johnson began to sob as she told Wilson that the president couldn’t even remember her husband’s name. It would be too generous to the president to say that this was simply a matter of misinterpretation.
Lastly, Kelly added that Wilson had engaged in this sort of political opportunism before, as was the case two years ago when she praised herself for having gathered funding for an FBI building dedicated to two slain police officers. As the Miami Herald shows, Wilson never mentioned having obtained funding as it was already secured before she even joined Congress.
In his long diatribe, Kelly had called her “an empty barrel,” which subsequently led to charges of racism. On this, it could be argued that Kelly has been unfairly treated, by both Wilson and the pundits. There is no evidence to suggest that Kelly is racist, and though he has used “empty barrel” before, when describing Representative Luis Gutierrez for instance, the term doesn’t seem to have any racial connections attached to it. There are more precise and palpable examples of insensitivities toward African-Americans by the president; from his arrogant disapprovals of the NFL protests or his open flirtations with white nationalists.
Toward the end of the press briefing, Kelly made some fairly ambiguous remarks. “When I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country,” Kelly said. “Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen 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.”
The imputations he made on society’s treatment of women possibly have something to do with the Harvey Weinstein allegations that erupted earlier this month and the Gold Star family he is referring to is likely that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, both of whom appeared at the Democratic National Convention and objected to Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims. Nonetheless, Kelly’s ire should instead be drawn toward the man he serves under; the same man who has collected his own harvest of sexual harassment and assault allegations, who has fomented racial divides and displayed little regard for fallen servicemen and women.
As James Fallows pointed out in The Atlantic, the civilian-military divide is concerning, as Kelly has also evinced, and its broader implications have not yet been fully explored. But this gulf between our men and women in uniform and the rest of American society has cultivated a complacent and rather overly reverential attitude that neglects any honest examination of the military as we would with any other American institution. Kelly seems to suggest that the military is not esteemed highly enough, and that any hard questions only illustrate the public’s minute understanding of the burden they carry for their sacrifice.
That most Americans are sheltered from the fear and loss shouldered by the military families is not false, but any accountability and criticism of the armed forces in general and the commander in chief in particular should not be dissuaded as it only exacerbates this growing gulf.
At the center of this episode is a young widow and her children who have just lost a father. The distress began with the president’s carelessness and lies, followed by Kelly’s deference to those lies and the lies of his own. His reproach of American society only recuses the real questions that the public has about the president’s negligence and now those same questions will be met upon his chief of staff as well. It is either Kelly’s patriotism or his yearning ambition or both that has compelled him to accept the role of managing the daily impulses and outbursts of a man so debased, yet the corollary that can certainly come with it is an impaired, perhaps even irreparably impaired, reputation.
*[This article was updated on October 30, 2017.]
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