You could hear a pin drop during White House Chief-of-Staff John Kelly’s press briefing today. Instead of the usual short statement followed by questions and answers, Kelly spent most of the 20 minute conference explaining the process that follows the death of a uniformed service member. Included were Kelly’s emotional description of condolences received from son Robert’s squad members following his combat death in Afghanistan. But Kelly took special time to denounce the actions and comments of Florida Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.
On Wednesday, President Trump called the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson — one of four U.S. servicemen recently killed in Niger — to offer his condolences. Rep. Wilson claimed to have eavesdropped on the call. She said she was with the family at the time and the call was on speakerphone. She claimed Trump told Wilson’s widow, “[Johnson] knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurt.” Wilson called Trump “coldhearted” and said “he feels no Pity or sympathy for anyone.”
The media ran with the story. The New York Times headline flashed: “Trump’s Condolence Call to Soldier’s Widow Ignites an Imbroglio.” Vox called it “The Raging Controversy…” The Times also accused Trump of lying when Trump claimed that Obama never called families of fallen servicemembers.
Kelly said that Trump asked him how other presidents handled this sensitive issue. Kelly responded by saying that Obama did not call when his son was killed. “That is not a criticism,” he said. Kelly said that some presidents elect to make calls, some don’t. All send letters. It doesn’t really matter because “there’s not much that can really take the edge off what the family is going through,” he said.
Kelly explained to an uncharacteristically hushed press corps, that President Trump followed Kelly’s specific advice when he made the call. Kelly explained that as a Marine officer he was counseled to say the same thing, and did so the many times he was required to make those devastating calls to loved ones of fallen Marines — sometimes the very men he had sent into battle. He would reassure families that their loved ones knew what they were getting into, and they were doing what they wanted to do with the people they wanted to do it with. They were making the most of life by being of service to others, and serving alongside some of the best people in the world. This was Trump’s message to Mrs. Johnson as well, he said.
Kelly had very sharp words for Rep. Wilson:
I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and brokenhearted, at what I saw a member of Congress doing… A member of Congress who listened in on a call from the President of the United States, to a young wife. And in his way, he tried to express that opinion, that [Sgt. Johnson] is a brave man. He’s a hero. He knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted… and he was… exactly where he wanted to be with exactly the people he wanted to be with, when his life was taken. That was the message that was transmitted. It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in to that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought, at least that was sacred…
Kelly went on to decry how things had changed for the worse in America since his youth — to the point that even a serviceman’s death is being used as a political football:
Many things were sacred. Women were sacred, and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen… Life, the dignity of life, that was sacred. Not anymore. That’s gone. Religion? That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families? I think that left in the [Democratic] convention over the summer…
But I just thought, the selfless devotion that brings a man or a woman to die on the battlefield… I just thought that that might be sacred.
And when I listened to that woman, and what she was saying, and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do, was to go walk among the greatest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them, cause they’re in the Arlington National Cemetery…
I appeal to America. Let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society — a young man or young woman going out and giving his or her life for this country. Let’s try to somehow keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday, by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.
Kelly further broke precedent by limiting questions to only those reporters who knew someone in a Gold Star family – i.e. a family that has lost a family member in combat. That limited the questioners to a very few, and one suspects even some of them may have been ignoring Kelly’s request.
This was a truly moving speech, even though Gen. Kelly did not intend it to be a speech. He was just relating an aspect of military service that is rarely if ever mentioned outside of the military. But it ranks, with its quiet dignity, among the best I have heard in recent memory. It was moving and powerful because it was heartfelt and direct from someone who lived it. It imposed an enforced humility even on the towering arrogance of the DC press corps, because it dealt with an issue few of them know anything about: the profound selflessness of active-duty military members who face death and life-altering injury on the battlefield as part of their usually thankless, everyday job.
Many members of our press corps and the political establishment actually look down on servicemembers. They reflect the same ignorant, elitist attitude expressed by presidential candidate John Kerry in 2006, who suggested that people in the military are too stupid to do anything else. If you recall, he said,
You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.
Kerry’s attitude defines today’s media mavens and corrupt political class. Thank you Gen. Kelly for calling them on it.