Thursday afternoon, John Kelly delivered one of the most despicable statements that I’ve ever heard from a White House official. He ignored the suffering of a Gold Star widow and launched a slanderous attack against a sitting member of Congress, all to defend Donald Trump’s indefensible behavior.
As we all know, two days ago Trump took to Twitter to respond to the growing firestorm over his condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, whose husband, Sergeant La David Johnson, was killed earlier this month in Niger. “He knew what he was signing up for, but I guess it hurts anyway,” Trump allegedly told her.
According to Trump, US Representative Frederica Wilson, who overheard the call and had gone public about the president’s remarks, “totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
As Kelly implicitly admitted, this is a lie.
Indeed, according to Kelly, he helped counsel Trump on what to say to the family members of the four soldiers killed in Niger. Taking lessons from his own experience as a Gold Star father, Kelly suggested that Trump say exactly what Wilson claimed he had said.
“Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me,” after Kelly’s son was killed in Afghanistan, Kelly said he told the president. “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. . . . And when he died . . . he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.”
This is a lovely sentiment, but from all appearances it’s one that Trump badly mangled.
As it turned out, Trump’s call didn’t comfort Johnson’s widow. It made her cry, in part because Trump didn’t appear to know her husband’s name. Cowanda Jones-Johnson, who is Sergeant Johnson’s aunt, but who largely raised him, backed up Wilson’s statement and told The Washington Post, “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”
Putting everything else aside, isn’t that the most important story here? I find it hard to believe that the president of the United States made a Gold Star widow cry on purpose. But he made her cry nonetheless. Shouldn’t that make Trump and Kelly heartbroken? Shouldn’t it be their priority to apologize to Myeshia Johnson and do everything they can to soothe her pain and that of her family?
In a White House guided by an ethos of compassion, decency, and selflessness, that would certainly be the case.
But according to Kelly, he felt “broken-hearted” for a different reason. He called it sacrilegious that Wilson listened to the president’s call (even though Kelly listened to it as well). He was even more upset because, in his mind, Trump tried to tell Myeshia Johnson that her husband was a brave man who “knew what he was getting himself into” but that’s “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,” said Kelly.
But that clearly was not the message transmitted. If it had been, would Myeshia Johnson have been so upset after Trump’s call? Would her family feel that the president disrespected her and her slain husband? Whether intentional or not, Trump did not console Myeshia Johnson; he made her pain worse. Yet, there was no apology for her or the rest of Sergeant Johnson’s family. In fact, Kelly never mentioned Myeshia Johnson.
He did, however, mention Frederica Wilson, whom he petulantly and savagely attacked. Kelly accused Wilson of “selfish behavior” and said that she comes from the “long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise.” Kelly, quite clearly, was trying to shift attention away from his boss and onto a black congresswoman, who has already received threats (and, as we’ve learned today, Kelly’s criticism of a speech Wilson delivered in 2015 was a complete fabrication.)
Even worse than that, Kelly showed no understanding of Wilson’s relationship to the Johnson family.
The Congresswoman had known Sergeant Johnson since he was a child. In fact, he had been a member of a mentoring program that Wilson helped create for at-risk minority youth. Wilson had even been the principal of a school Johnson’s father attended. She was in that car with Myeshia Johnson when the president called not because she is a congresswoman, but because she is practically a member of the family.
That didn’t stop Kelly from using Wilson as a political punching bag — all to defend his thin-skinned, narcissistic boss.
Of all the people who work in the White House, John Kelly should know better. He understands all too tragically the unimaginable grief being felt by the Johnson family and by Wilson. But in what is perhaps the quintessential example of how Trump’s narcissism, selfishness, and lack of basic decency infects all those around him, Kelly gave no public indication that he thought one iota about their suffering.
Rather, his focus yesterday was on the hurt feelings of Donald Trump.
Americans should expect that the president will rise above pettiness; that she or he will be the better woman or man. With this White House, such expectations are a fool’s errand. And on Thursday, Kelly’s ghastly, disgraceful, contemptible performance offered a compelling reminder that the so-called “adults in the room” are the same ones enabling this horror show of a presidency.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.