White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said something during her daily press briefing Friday that actually took my breath away.
CBS News’ Chip Reid asked Sanders about a factual inaccuracy in White House chief of staff and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly’s attack on Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson on Thursday. Here’s how Sanders responded:
“If you want to go after General Kelly, that is up to you. If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that is something highly inappropriate.
Just in case you don’t get what Sanders is suggesting, it’s something like this: General Kelly is a highly decorated soldier. As such, questioning things that he says is “highly inappropriate.”
That’s not how democracy works. Not at all. In fact, it’s the opposite of how democracy works.
Start here: General Kelly’s military service and the sacrifices he and his family have made for our country are beyond question. It is impossible to suggest otherwise.
But that military service does not mean that questioning Kelly’s statements is wrong or inappropriate. Quite the opposite! Kelly is the chief of staff to the President of the United States. He is, in that role, arguably the second or third most powerful person in the country. A person with that sort of power must be held to account for what he says and how he acts.
That’s where the press comes in. We ask questions – regardless of someone’s title or rank. And we expect those questions to be answered because, ultimately, Kelly is a steward of the public trust and the media is the liaison between top-ranking government officials and the populace.
A free and independent media is just what those words, “free” and “independent,” mean. A media free and independent enough to question the White House chief of staff – and, yes, even the President – when they say something that is not backed up by the facts.
That is what a democracy is. That is what members of the US military and public servants, including Kelly himself, have fought for throughout the decades – the right of the media to ask questions of even the most powerful person in the country and expect some attempt at an answer. That ability is the linchpin of our democracy and what separates us from authoritarian governments all over the world.
Another remark Sanders made later in the briefing would suggest that her comments about questioning Kelly weren’t simply a slip of the tongue.
Asked about the ongoing back-and-forth between Trump/Kelly and Wilson regarding comments the President made to Myeshia Johnson, a woman whose husband, Sgt. La David Johnson, was killed serving in Niger, Sanders said of the story: “It should have ended yesterday after General Kelly’s comments. But it didn’t. It continued.”
First of all, one of the big reasons it continued is because Trump himself tweeted this just before 11 p.m. on Thursday night: “The Fake News is going crazy with wacky Congresswoman Wilson(D), who was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!”
Second of all, this White House – and no White House ever – gets to decide when a story is over or when enough questions have been asked.
Yes, Kelly delivered a stirring and moving testimonial to the sacrifices of military families. But he also made a false claim about Wilson hogging credit for the dedication of an FBI building. And as Kelly himself acknowledged, we still don’t have all the answers – or even most of the answers – about what happened in that ambush in Niger that left four men dead.
After her comments about the propriety of contesting Kelly’s statements caused a stir, Sanders said in an email comment to CNN: “Of course everyone can be questioned. But after witnessing General Kelly’s heartfelt and somber account, we should all be able to agree that impugning his credibility on how best to honor fallen heroes is not appropriate.”
I’ve said it before, but in the wake of Sanders’ fundamental misunderstanding of the role the media plays in a democracy, I will say it again: You can not like the media. Hell, you can hate us.
But don’t ever make the mistake of believing you or our society would be better off if the government got to dictate to the press what questions are asked of people in power. It wouldn’t be.