From the second that White House chief of staff John Kelly appeared in the White House press briefing room on Thursday afternoon, you could tell something big was about to happen.
After all, President Donald Trump’s administration had been consumed over the last 24 hours with a “he said/she said” fight over what the President said to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of one of the four American servicemen killed in an ISIS ambush in Niger. Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson – in an account backed up by a family member – said that Trump had told the widow of her husband that “he knew what he was getting into” – a phrase that deeply upset her. Trump insisted the call was polite and respectful, and that Wilson wasn’t telling the truth for partisan purposes.
Enter Kelly. A four-star general. A man widely respected even by those who roll their eyes at Trump. And, most significantly for the sake of today, a father who had lost a son in military combat. (Kelly’s son, Robert, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.)
Kelly stepped to the podium and delivered a moving and raw recounting of how soldiers killed in action are transported from the field of battle to their homes. How they are honored by their peers. And how they are the best of us.
It was incredibly powerful stuff – made even more so by the back story of Kelly’s firsthand experience with his own son’s death. This wasn’t a politician saying the right words. This was a man who knows loss intimately. Who knows what it means to make the ultimate sacrifice.
No one who watched those first few minutes could help but be swayed by the power of Kelly’s words and his experiences. It was stunning.
Then, however, Kelly transitioned into an attempt to clean up Trump’s mess.
Kelly recalled what his best friend Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commandant of the Marine Corps, had told him when Kelly’s own son was killed: “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed,” Kelly said Dunford told him. “He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were because we were at war. And when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That’s what the President tried to say to the four families the other day.”
Added Kelly of Trump: “He expressed his condolences in the best way he could.”
The takeaway? Yes, Trump said the words Wilson said he said. But, no, he didn’t mean them in the way Wilson (and Johnson, according to family) took them.
Which is fair. After all, no one would dispute Kelly’s contention that calling the families of men and women who have been killed in combat is the hardest job the President has to do. And, again with a nod to Kelly, no one would dispute that there are simply no words that can truly bring comfort or closure to a family in pain.
Where Kelly veered off the track, to my mind, is when he sought to scold Wilson – and the culture more broadly – for turning the sacred service of a member of the military into a political football.
That sentiment is a powerful one. The problem is that in some of what Kelly said next, he seemed to be totally unaware of a number of his boss’s past statements and views.
Take, for example, this line: “When I was kid growing up a lot things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor.”
Kelly was presumably referring with disdain to the myriad allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a prominent movie executive and major Democratic donor. But it’s hard to square Kelly’s call to venerate women with Trump’s lewd comments made in an “Access Hollywood” tape. “Grab them by the pussy” isn’t exactly treating women as sacred.
Or Kelly’s plea that Gold Star families be off-limits from the political back-and-forth …
Remember that Trump – against the wishes and advice of virtually everyone in the Republican Party – attacked Khizr Khan, a father who had lost a son in Iraq, following Khan’s speech, which was heavily critical of Trump, at the Democratic National Convention. “Who wrote that? Did Hillary’s script writers write it?” Trump said of Khan’s speech at the time. “I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard.”
And it was also Trump who questioned the status of Arizona Sen. John McCain – who was tortured and held in captivity in Vietnam for years – as a war hero. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said of McCain. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
None of that takes away from Kelly’s powerful personal story and the sacrifices he and his family have made for this country. Those are beyond questioning. But casting aspersions on those who allegedly are destroying once-sacred institutions overlooks the role that Trump has also played in doing just that.