I watched much of Chief of Staff John Kelly's comments at the White House yesterday. I thought they were moving, emotional, heartfelt, personal, important and off-the-mark to the issue at hand, distracting and that the point of them was to be self-serving to his boss.
To be clear, he was in a difficult place. I'm sure he didn't want to be there. And I'm sure that the reason he was there was because his boss told him to. So, he had to defend his boss. And importantly, it was his boss who is the one who started the controversy by himself, unasked, bringing up how previous presidents handled consolation phone calls to grieving military families -- and lied about it, causing outrage from those administrations. It was yet another Trump-created controversy to distract from being questioned about the deaths of four Green Berets, and it backfired. So, he sent out his Chief of Staff to make the boss look good. And it was likely the last place John Kelly wanted to be. So, that was the job he was given.
But make no mistake, that was his job being there. He wasn't there as former Gen. John Kelly, grieving father, talking about personal loss, the military and honor. He was the Chief of Staff in the Trump administration trying to whitewash his boss at this boss's admonition.
On the personal side, John Kelly was touching and emotional and full of grace. But for his actual assignment, I believe he was solidly and significantly off-base.
To begin with, he referenced being stunned that a Congresswoman would "listen in" on a personal phone call between the president and a grieving widow. She was listening because that very widow had her own phone on speaker so that everyone present could hear it. The Congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, wasn't surreptitiously lifting up a receiver and secretly checking it out. I don't know why the Myeshia Johnson, the widow, put the call on speaker phone -- maybe she was so moved to get contacted by the president of the United States that she wanted everyone to hear. Or maybe she was outraged what the president was saying to her and she wanted others to hear as proof. I don't know. But it was her phone and her call and it's what she chose to do. So, don't put this on Rep. Wilson for "listening in" on the call. It's what the Gold Star widow wanted.
Moreover, for all we know, what Myeshia Johnson also wanted was to get the story of how disrespected that call made her feel to the public and Rep. Wilson was acting at her request. We have no evidence of that, but given the extremely close relationship Frederica Wilson had with the family, which was the very reason she was there in the first place and why Ms. Johnson put the conversation on speaker for both the Congresswoman and for her mother-in-law to hear, it seems far more likely that she would not have drawn a grieving widow into the public stage on this without it being precisely what Myeshia Johnson specifically wanted -- rather than than the Congresswoman going off all "rogue" at the expense of the widow of a young man she had mentored years before. And given that the family has confirmed and fully supported her, and not offered any criticism of the Congresswoman, that supports the likelihood that making this public was precisely what the family wanted and perhaps asked her to do. All as opposed to her surreptitiously "listening in."
Further, Chief of Staff Kelly expressed dismay that something "sacred" was disabused. I fully understand why he feels the phone call was sacred. Such calls are sacred. And for John Kelly, it was personal, as well, making such things all the more sacred. But he was not at the microphones speaking on behalf of his personal grief, but there as Chief of Staff defending his boss. And I think anyone involved with this Trump administration who tries to claim "sacred" as a defense for anything has no ground to stand on. "Sacred" went out the window and down the sewer long ago with Trump. The Chief of Staff's boss long-since ran a bulldozer over "sacred" and threw it in the dumpster, and it's no longer on the Trump table, and former Gen. Kelly knows that. One would have thought it "sacred" not to trash Gold Star parents in the first place, but Trump did that. And it would have been been considered "sacred" not to ridicule a POW who had been tortured yet heroically chose not to be sent home so that he could stay with his men, but Trump did that, as well. And one would think it sacred to remain seated and not crack jokes throughout the solemn playing of Taps on a military base, but Trump did that, as well, on live TV, no less. Or to make fun of disabled people or try to undercut the judicial system because of where a judge's ancestors were from, or promote violence against political opponents and the media, or brag about sexually abusing women (who John Kelly referred to as "sacred" when he was growing up), or hiring foreign agents as you National Security Adviser and campaign manager, or have your campaign setting up meetings with foreign enemy officials to get dirt on your political opponents, or attempt to undermine the faith that American citizens have in all the watchdog organizations -- from the media to intelligence services -- that keep government honest, or fire an FBI director because you said on camera that you wanted him to stop investigating Russia collusion by your campaign, or suggest keeping a registered list of all members of a religion and keep surveillance on that religion's houses of worship. But Trump not only did any of that, but ALL of it. So, don't come climbing on a pedestal bemoaning that you would have thought at least some things were sacred. They are -- but not where you work, not where you were standing as you said those words. Your boss got rid of "sacred" not long after he rode down an escalator announcing his candidacy to a roomful of actors he had paid to be there and cheer him.
And through it all, John Kelly never once even deigned to refer to Rep. Frederica Wilson by her name, choosing instead to dehumanize her. Worse, not just calling her only by her job, the "Congresswoman", but repeatedly referencing her as an "empty shell." Talking about the loud noises that "empty shells" make. What you expect from an "empty shell." Over and over. Indeed, he even took a digression to tell a story about how at an emotional ceremony that dedicated a building named after two deceased FBI agents, Rep. Wilson had bragged about getting the federal money for the facility. In fact, though, the building was funded before she ever was elected, and what she actually did was break through the governmental red tape to get it named for those two men -- just days before the event, a process that normally takes eight years. Something for which then-FBI director James Comey said at the occasion, "Rep. Wilson truly did the impossible, and we are eternally grateful." Moreover, in her speech she actually gives appreciative credit to GOP Speaker John Boehner and GOP Senator Marco Rubio. In fact, you can watch her full speech here and see for yourself. And throughout him telling this story about the building dedication -- and getting it totally wrong -- John Kelly kept calling Frederica Wilson an "empty shell." So much for women being "sacred" to Trump's Chief of Staff.
It was also worth noting that John Kelly explained that President Obama never called him in consolation after his son's death, a personal and heartfelt expression, but what stood out is that he didn't complete the thought and instead left out the larger reality. Because what he importantly failed to mention is that he and his wife had been invited to a White House breakfast that President Obama hosted for Gold Star families and seated at the table with First Lady Michelle Obama. So he himself turned his words, as personal and difficult and heartbreaking as they were to his life, into an edited excuse from a Chief of Staff defending his boss's inaction at the behest of his boss. "Make sure to tell them Obama never called you, but leave out all that part about the White House invitation sitting with the First Lady. It's better that way, believe me."
But perhaps most notable was when John Kelly addressed the wrenching thought that goes into making a phone call to a grieving widow. He explained a conversation he once had on the same subject with an officer about his own son, saying how when a soldier goes to war, he is with those closest to him and at his death he is surrounded by his friends which is the best thing in the world, and he knows what he is getting himself into when he agrees to be in the military. And that's a noble look at the tragic situation, and a proper look at it. But there are two very important problems with what Chief of State Kelly said --
The first is that the conversation he was describing was between two military offers experienced in war and the tragedy of death in their own chosen profession. That's a thoroughly different situation from calling a grieving widow on the loss of her husband, pregnant with their child. What two officers say to one another about the intimate tragedy that looms over their careers like an omnipresent specter is not inherently what a leader says to Gold Star spouse. And secondly, as eloquent as John Kelly was in his moving description of the realities of his own son's death in war, we have no evidence from anyone involved on any side that that is what Trump said to the widow, Myeshia Johnson. From what we know from all parties involved, on either side, what Trump said was a significantly-more dismissive, "He knew what he was getting into, but I guess it hurts anyway." Had Trump expressed precisely what John Kelly did, and done so with such gentle thought and emotional caring, it's likely that this never would have become an issue, ever, since it would have been admirable. But gentle thought and emotional caring is not in the Trump makeup, and instead we got, "He knew what he was getting into, but I guess it hurts anyway." And based on the past, cold abuse he'd already heaped on other Gold Star families, and on the disabled, and glibly accepting the gift of a Purple Heart medal because "I always wanted one," and joking seated during Taps, and tossing paper towels to victims of the Puerto Rico catastrophe, it's a far safer bet that he delivered his "He knew what he was getting into, but I guess it hurts anyway" message with as little concern as possible. Not even knowing, it seems, the names of either the Green Beret who lost his life, LaDavid Johnson, or his wife, Myeshia Johnson.
So, for all the very real sensitive, thoughtful and emotional explanation that Chief of Staff John Kelly delivered about his personal experience and the reality of the military, make no mistake -- that was a political presentation meant to cover the butt of his boss. Because that's what his boss wanted and sent him out -- just as he sent out Rex Tillerson to offset reports of being called a moron -- to offset this time the mucked-up controversy that Trump himself caused, lying about past presidents in the first place, unasked, to avoid dealing with the deaths of four Green Berets.
And John Kelly is there to support Trump. And suck up to him if necessary, as he did the day his boss received the gift of a sword and then-DHS Secretary Kelly quipped that it could be used on journalists. Ha, ha, good one.
Chief of Staff John Kelly made an emotional and elegant presentation. But he was pushed out on stage to make it. I don't believe for a moment it's where he wanted to be or what he wanted to do. And in the end, it did not succeed in its intent to exonerate Trump for, once again, not ever taking the blame for anything but pointing the finger at others.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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