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Story highlights

Dorothy Brown: In Gen. John Kelly's press conference Thursday, he didn't live up to his reputation as a grown-up, especially in his comments about women

If women were sacred, Kelly would not have referred to an elected member of Congress, a black woman, as an "empty barrel," Brown writes

Editor’s Note: Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of law at Emory University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

On October 4, tragedy struck and four Americans were killed in Niger. For over a week Donald Trump was silent. On October 16, President Trump was asked why he had not spoken about the Niger ambush.

His answer: most presidents, including President Obama, had not contacted families of American troops killed in duty. He said, however, that he planned to make calls. When reporters followed up, President Trump conceded that President Obama probably did make calls sometimes. Trump said he was merely repeating what he had been told and that he relies on his generals.

Trump finally did call the widow of one of the four service members killed, and controversy erupted when he reportedly told her that her slain husband “knew what he was getting into.”

Dorothy A. Brown
Dorothy A. Brown

But the real guilty party here is not President Trump, for insensitivity, but White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly.

Kelly, whose son, Robert, died in Afghanistan in 2010, was thrust into the spotlight on this issue by his boss, and appeared in the White House briefing room on Thursday afternoon. Here he delivered a powerful recounting of how the remains of soldiers killed in action are taken from the battlefield to their homes, honored, and revered. As stirring and emotional as these early remarks from the chief of staff were, what followed in the press conference revealed something else about Kelly: He is a Make America Great Again kind of guy.

Some background: Many found hope when Kelly was appointed as White House chief of staff. They said a grown-up was now in the White House.

Kelly was appointed and heads rolled: out went Anthony Scaramucci, Steve Bannon, and Sebastian Gorka.

Kelly was photographed hanging his head when, during a Q&A with reporters, President Trump was unable to condemn the Nazis and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, while describing violence “on many sides.”

In Kelly’s press conference Thursday, he didn’t live up to his reputation as a grown-up. He said, “President Obama did not call my family, ” though he made it clear he wasn’t criticizing Obama. He appeared to jump from his personal experience and to the conclusion that President Obama must not have called any families.

The White House chief of staff did not do his homework. President Obama not only made calls but he often consoled family members in real time. Whatever a chief of staff is supposed to do, he is supposed to get the facts right before advising the President or speaking to the press.

He also talked wistfully about how women were sacred in his youth and he seemed to long for those times. Kelly was born in 1950, so his youth wasn’t particularly the best time for women or people of color in the US. Also, women have never been treated like we were sacred. Not when Kelly was a child and not in 2017.

Some context: October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It was not created because once upon a time women were sacred but now we need a month dedicated to domestic violence awareness because somehow we lost our way. Marital rape was not even a crime until 1979 – and at the time was still not a crime in every state.

Women are not sacred today. If we were, the White House would not be occupied by a man who was taped admitting to sexually assaulting women because “they let you do it,” as he so unartfully put it. Kelly works for that guy.

If women were sacred, Kelly would not have referred to an elected member of Congress, a black woman, as an “empty barrel” – an insult to Frederica Wilson’s intelligence that was far out of line for someone who claims not to want to politicize this situation further. Neither would he have lied about what Wilson said at a dedication ceremony of an FBI building in 2015.

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With this press conference, Kelly has done his President and the country a disservice. He took a tragic situation and made it worse. He owes his boss and the country an apology.