After all the sound and fury and infantile tweeting, what have we learned from the controversy over the president’s call to Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow? We still don’t know much about why he and his three fellow Green Berets died or what the U.S. mission may be in Niger. But we again discovered something about Donald Trump that should have been obvious for a long time: Getting too close to him will eventually ruin anybody’s good reputation.
In this instance, the permanent damage was done to John Kelly, the retired Marine Corps general who serves as White House chief of staff. Brought in to rescue this debacle of an incompetent and ill-intentioned administration, Kelly was well-respected despite his role in implementing Trump’s heartless, bigoted immigration policies at the Department of Homeland Security.
His dubious record both there and in the White House, where he plainly failed to curtail the worst excesses of this presidency, were mostly blamed on Trump. Indeed, Kelly drew sympathy for the impossible nature of his job.
As a Gold Star father, who lost one of his two Marine sons seven years ago in Afghanistan, Kelly was entitled to a much deeper kind of sympathy. That tragic sacrifice naturally enhanced his earned authority as a four-star flag officer.
That authority began to wither minutes after Kelly stepped before a White House podium to rescue Trump from his own mess – and to attack Rep. Frederica Wilson for revealing the president’s insensitive conversation with Johnson’s widow, Myeshia. Rather than disproving Wilson’s account, Kelly confirmed that he had given Trump talking points that coincided precisely with her recollection – and that the president, coldly devoid of compassion, had flubbed it.
Clumsy as it was, Kelly’s attempt to explain that dispiriting incident was excusable and even understandable. Call it the necessary duty of a presidential aide. He may even have felt responsible in some way for Trump’s phone call fiasco. But then he went a long step further, with the blithering arrogance and venomous excess that are so typical of this presidency.
Only a true Trumpster could complain obliviously, as Kelly did, that America no longer reveres women and Gold Star families, as if the president he serves were not notorious for disrespecting and demeaning both. And only a true Trumpster would then embark on a nasty, wholly inaccurate assault on the character of a critic like Wilson, as if demeaning her would somehow excuse Trump.
Kelly claimed that Wilson had illicitly “listened in” on Trump’s conversation with Myeshia Johnson – but she only happened to have been present, as a close family friend and mentor of Sgt. Johnson. Kelly accused Wilson of grandstanding at the dedication of the FBI building in Miami. Kelly called her “an empty barrel” and derided her as “selfish,” saying that her self-serving remarks had “stunned” and “appalled” the audience.
Video of that event showed that Kelly was lying, or at best misremembering. Wilson hadn’t behaved like the clownish politician he described. During a dedication speech that Kelly described as “brilliant,” in fact, FBI director James Comey had singled out Wilson for praise because she had acted with such alacrity to ensure that the Miami building was named for two agents gunned down in the line of duty.
What made Kelly’s angry denunciation of Wilson so Trumpish was that even when he had been proved utterly wrong, he sent word to the press that he “absolutely” stood by his inaccurate statement. And Trump press secretary Sarah Sanders compounded the offense by warning that nobody should cast doubt on a four-star general, as if we live in Pinochet’s Chile instead of a country where freedom to criticize public officials is constitutionally guaranteed. That is the country and the Constitution that Kelly, his sons, and Sgt. Johnson all swore to protect.
He served Trump poorly in this disgraceful episode, which could have been resolved so easily with far better results for the president and the country. He could have urged Trump to apologize if Myeshia Johnson misunderstood his words or intentions. He could have acted with dignity and restraint himself, instead of petulance and condescension. He could have promoted unity and respect rather than the usual angry division.
But then he wouldn’t belong in Trump’s White House.