John Kelly’s Volcanic Remarks

White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly briefs reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House Daily White House press briefing, Washington DC, USA - 12 Oct 2017 (Rex Features via AP Images)
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We’ll have reports on specifics shortly. But Chief of Staff John Kelly just spoke during the White House press briefing about the entire military bereavement phone call controversy. It was volcanic. He mercilessly attacked Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, both for her comments a couple days ago and for an earlier incident (which frankly seemed like a cheap shot). Kelly took basically complete responsibility for everything President Trump had done, what he had said, how he handled the phone calls to the families of the four who died in Niger.

The tenor was emotional, focused and intense. The upshot, though, was basically to turn everything that has happened over the last three days into a press and public attack on the sacredness of military sacrifice. Kelly has walked the walk and suffered it. He rose to the highest ranks of the Marine corps and lost a son in Afghanistan. He speaks with great credibility and experience. But I must say that the fusillade he delivered turned things almost entirely upside down.

I’ve seen very little evidence of anyone disrespecting military sacrifice. I’ve seen a lot of evidence of people thinking President Trump has done just that and being aghast at seeing it. We can’t know Trump’s exact feelings. We don’t know all his actions. But he’s given people lots of reasons to think and feel that way in recent days. It’s hardly surprising that people were outraged by the way he shifted toward baseless attacks on his predecessors to deflect criticism of himself. It was shameful.

Kelly also said, in addition to his other criticisms of Rep. Wilson that he was stunned she had ‘listened in’ on a call from the President to a bereaved widow. It seems quite clear from everything we know that the family took President Trump’s call on speaker phone with Rep. Wilson there with them. My understanding is she had a personal relationship with the family. He made it sound like she was violating some trust, eavesdropping almost. That seems deeply misleading and dishonest. Kelly did not mention that the mother, who was there, backed up Rep. Wilson’s account. Wilson made a very direct and damaging attack on the President. But this is a member of Congress, caring for and being with a bereaved family. Invited by them, sharing their pain. ‘Listening in’ is just an attack that turns everything on its head.

Kelly even seemed to suggest that the Khan Family, who then-candidate Trump mercilessly attacked, had dishonored gold star families. Among the things he said are now now longer sacred, he listed “Gold Star Families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.” It’s hard to imagine he was criticizing President Trump’s subsequent, widely criticized and vicious attacks on the Khan family. He seemed to be attacking the Khans themselves. They’re the ones who violated the sacredness of military sacrifice.

There was so much in his remarks that I want to take a bit to think it over, absorb it. There’s a lot there about this moment and the Trump presidency, a lot about John Kelly. Kelly has a lot of credibility he has earned. I don’t want to question his motives simply because his description and comments seem so at odds with what I have seen over recent days. But the entirety of his comments seemed exploitative, an effort to turn people’s certainly reasonable (and I believe accurate) sense of being appalled at the President into an attack on military service and military sacrifice. That’s not right. That’s not true. It’s a more emotion-packed version of Trump’s effort to turn the anthem/police brutality protests into dishonoring military sacrifice. He ended up by refusing to take questions from reporters who couldn’t say they personally knew a Gold Star Family.

Freedom of speech and the press is also sacred. It is one of the values American military personnel strive to defend. I understand that he said this in a moment of peaked emotion. But we individuals or reporters don’t earn our spurs of civic freedom by being proximate to military service. That’s ugly and wrong. I am going to leave aside Kelly’s motives. But this spectacle seemed ugly and exploitative, ignoring much of what has happened over the last three days, falsifying other things. President Trump is a blowhard and a phony and a liar. Kelly isn’t. He brings prestige and a lifetime of military service to every remark. But at the end of the day this seemed like putting that wrapper of dignity around the most Trumpian of traits: never apologize, always attack, let the truth defend itself.

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