Two weeks after four American soldiers were killed in Niger, Donald Trump called the families of the fallen on Tuesday. In the case of Sgt. La David T. Johnson’s family, the presidential call apparently did not go well.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), who is personally close with the family, was with Johnson’s widow when Trump called, and heard the president’s message, which she said was not well received. The fallen soldier’s mother, who was also there, added that she felt that the president showed “disrespect” to the family.
Today, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired four-star general and himself a Gold Star parent, appeared in the press briefing room and criticized the Democratic congresswoman’s handling of the matter.
In heartfelt remarks about his own tragedy, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former general whose Marine son was killed in Afghanistan, said Thursday that he was “stunned” by a Florida lawmaker’s criticism of President Donald Trump’s condolence call to a fallen soldier’s wife.
Kelly described himself as “broken-hearted” coming to work at the White House on Wednesday as he saw Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., on news networks disclosing the private details of Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was among four soldiers killed earlier this month in Niger.
Kelly covered a fair amount of ground at the podium this afternoon, describing in detail how the Defense Department notifies families on the loss of a loved one, and his own experience after the loss of his son, who was killed in Afghanistan.
The president’s chief of staff also explained how he counseled Trump once the president decided he’d call these Gold Star families, advising him on what he might say. Kelly explained that Trump “expressed his condolences in the best way he could.”
It seemed that the intended message was that Trump had made a good-faith effort, and he should get the benefit of the doubt. At least as of yesterday, David Johnson’s family felt very differently.
But Kelly’s strongest frustrations were directed at Frederica Wilson, the Miami-area congresswoman, who “stunned” the White House chief of staff what he saw as “selfish” politicization of a tragedy. As Kelly argued today, Wilson shouldn’t have listened in on the private conversation. A rough transcript from his unscripted remarks:
“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’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. I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die in the battlefield, I thought that might be sacred.”
The implication, obviously, was that Frederica Wilson did not properly respect that which should be seen as sacred. If there’s an antagonist in this story, we’re apparently supposed to believe it’s the congresswoman.
But let’s not forget the relevant details: David Johnson’s family reached out to Wilson, who knew the fallen soldier personally, and who is personal friends with the family. Based on what we know so far, the congresswoman wasn’t eavesdropping on a private conversation between the president and a grieving family; she was invited to be with them and heard a phone call that was on speaker.
And while there’s room for debate about how Wilson shared what transpired with the public, it’s also worth remembering that David Johnson’s loved ones have confirmed her description of what happened.
What’s more, while Kelly’s remarks this afternoon were no doubt powerful, and he speaks with credibility and authority that his boss lacks, what struck me watching him this afternoon is the disconnect between Donald Trump and his chief of staff.
Kelly condemned the politicization of this issue, but it’s Trump who’s spent much of the week boasting about how much better he is than his predecessors at contacting the families of slain servicemen and women. Kelly said he was disappointed to see that women are not treated honorably, but it’s Trump’s who’s bragged about his own sexual misconduct towards women.
Kelly lamented the fact Gold Star families are no longer seen as sacred, but it’s Trump who feuded needlessly with the Khan family last fall.
Kelly’s service and sacrifices demand respect. That doesn’t change the fact that his argument this afternoon was burdened by important flaws.