In the sadly contentious matter of remembering Sergeant La David Johnson, the villain turns out to be Congresswoman Fredericka Wilson, more of a ghoulish clown, really. President Trump plays the role of a loyal guard dog who doth bark too much, and General John Kelly comes off as a brave knight with a scratch in his armor. The sudden frenzy already is old news and much picked over, but maybe insufficiently considered.
The flurry happened fast. President Trump called Myeshia Johnson, the widow of a soldier fallen in a raid in Niger to express his condolences. The next day, news reported that Congresswoman Wilson claimed Trump told the bereaved woman: “He knew what he signed up for.” Trump denied that was his message. The family said “Yeah, that’s about what he said.” Suddenly, the national food fight commenced over the president remembering a fallen soldier. Partisans of different stripes variously condemned Trump’s crassness, defended his intent and the fair meaning of the contested phrase, or, condemned Trump for bullying and debating a Gold Star family. Trump’s Chief of Staff, former Marine General John Kelly, a Gold Star parent himself, held a press conference and offered a magisterial and moving account of the way America treats its fallen soldiers, the debt we owe such men and women, and his own experience in the loss of a son.
He described his discussion with the president about how to speak to the families. He recalled the words of comfort his own best friend gave him: “He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war.”
As a relevant digression, the phrases are not unlike the tone and framing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, in testimony before Congress, described the service of Ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in Libya:
“Chris Stevens understood that diplomats must operate in many places where our soldiers do not, where there are no other boots on the ground, and safety is far from guaranteed. In fact, he volunteered for just those assignments.
He also understood we will never prevent every act of terrorism or achieve perfect security, and that we inevitably must accept a level of risk to protect our country and advance our interests and values.
. . .
Nobody knew the dangers of Libya better — a weak government, extremist groups, rampant instability. But Chris chose to go to Benghazi because he understood America had to be represented there at that pivotal time.”
Apparently, admiring a person’s willing acceptance of the risk of service can be respectful, except when critics want to inject cheap politics into the moment.
At the press conference, General Kelly concluded his remarks by expressing regret bordering on lamentation that anyone like Congresswoman Wilson would degrade the solemnity of the president’s call by “listening in” and politicizing it. (Rep. Wilson later protested she “hadn’t listened in” at all. She was in a car and listened to the conversation on a speaker phone. Well. That clarifies things.)
Kelly described an earlier event, the dedication of a federal building in Florida, named for three fallen FBI agents. He said FBI Director James Comey had given a magnificent memorial, and then Wilson delivered a hyped political speech, bragging about how she secured the money to pay for the federal building. Kelly expressed his disappointment in the empty barrel making loud and inappropriate noise.
It was a bravura performance that brought tears to many eyes and a temporary halt to partisan sniping. But, in America today, all such halts are very temporary. Critics returned to the theme that Trump should not have contradicted a bereaved family. Shortly, video of the Congresswoman’s speech at the dedication surfaced. It turns out she had not bragged about bringing home the appropriations bacon, rather, she had bragged about pushing through the administrative process to name a federal building in record time.
This is a distinction without a difference. Wilson had given a political rah rah speech at a solemn occasion. But, the opportunity was there for partisan media to pounce on Kelly. “Video proves John Kelly lied about Rep. Wilson” brayed MSNBC. Other outlets piled on.
And so, not many days after the death of a brave man in a far away place the brawl continues over whether the president disrespected him in paying condolences. Another Gold Star widow, Natasha De Alencar, distraught by the politicization released the recording of the president’s respectful and “heartfelt” call to her after her husband was killed in Afghanistan.
It is worth summing up the roles of the major players here. President Trump wanted to comfort Myeshia Johnson on the loss of her husband. He sought counsel from his Chief of Staff, a man better positioned to give that counsel than anyone. He made the call.
Someone, it is a safe bet not the grieving widow, invited Fredericka Wilson to listen into the call and the next day, she was slamming the president to the media, politicizing a family’s tragedy. There is no benign explanation for Wilson listening in. If she was included because she was close to the family, she should have been there with them. Her participation was an obvious set up. She played her role and rained ugly controversy all over the suffering of Myeshia Johnson.
Trump took the bait, and escalated the rhetoric with a tweet that the Congresswoman had “fabricated” her account. More likely she had distorted and maligned his sincere respect. Truly he doth bark too much.
General Kelly did a masterful and gracious job putting things in context and directing the nation’s attention where it belongs, on the heroism and sacrifice of America’s fighting men and women. But, he botched an insignificant detail which invited the partisan jackals to keep barking.
And tonight, in far away places, thousands America’s finest young people stand guard, protecting the peace and security of a nation that may or may not deserve them.