One of the most effective damage-control performances you’ll ever see by possibly the only man in the administration with the moral authority to do it. John Kelly isn’t just a retired Marine general, he’s the father of a U.S. soldier killed in action in Afghanistan himself. If you believe CNN, he had no warning that Trump was going to use his own son’s death and Obama’s response to it as part of his defense for not having called the families of the troops killed in Niger. When he didn’t show up at a couple of Trump appearances yesterday, media types wondered if his absence was deliberate. Was he angry at Trump? Shocked that his family’s loss was now a political football? Would he resign?
Just watch. POTUS couldn’t have asked for more from him to end the controversy over what he said to Sgt. La David Johnson’s widow. Kelly *is* angry — at Rep. Frederica Wilson, not at Trump, for listening in on Trump’s condolence call and then using it as a political bludgeon. (Kelly himself was listening in, actually, according to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.) And Trump only said what Kelly advised him to say, Kelly adds. The idea that Johnson “knew what he signed up for” was merely to suggest that he was with his comrades, serving his country and doing what he loved, when he was killed. He died nobly among those who cared for him. That’s all Trump meant. Kelly even goes so far as to note that he advised Trump *not* to call families of the fallen, as presidents don’t routinely do it and it wasn’t done when his son died (which, he stressed in noting it, was no criticism of Obama). Trump was actually going beyond the call of duty, per Kelly’s own conception of that duty. What more could he have said to protect POTUS here?
A couple of points, though. When he accuses Wilson of listening in on the call, he makes it sound like she was surreptitiously eavesdropping on another receiver. Wilson was in a limo with Johnson’s family when the call came. The call was put on speakerphone, presumably at Mrs. Johnson’s request so that everyone else there could hear it too. The family wanted Wilson to hear it, apparently. She wasn’t just Johnson’s congresswoman either. He had graduated from her “Role Models of Excellence” program so she knew him and his family. She wasn’t with them in the limo in hopes that Trump might happen to call at that moment and she might score a political point.
Most significantly, it wasn’t just Wilson who objected to Trump’s tone during the phone call. It was Johnson’s own mother, who told WaPo that Wilson’s account of the call was accurate and that “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.” Kelly’s account of the call doesn’t even square with Trump’s. Trump, remember, claimed Wilson “totally fabricated” what he supposedly said to Mrs. Johnson. Kelly, on the other hand, essentially says that Wilson’s account was accurate. She’s not guilty of fabrication but of putting an unfairly negative spin on a comment Trump made about the risks of military service.
Even so, no one’s going to press Kelly further about this unless Johnson’s mother or widow extends the story by speaking publicly about the call. In a contest of moral authority, they’re the only people who can challenge his own in this situation.
Gen. Kelly: "It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation … I thought 'at least that was sacred'" pic.twitter.com/Dooa0VzZgT
— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 19, 2017
White House chief of staff John Kelly describes how families are notified and how fallen soldiers return to the US https://t.co/rXZGBuzQrm
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) October 19, 2017
Update: This isn’t over, says Wilson:
"John Kelly's trying to keep his job. He will say anything," says @RepWilson in response to Trump's staff chief who ripped her for disclosing details of controversial call with soldier's widow. "There were other people who heard what I heard." https://t.co/DDer2xmO9S
— Marc Caputo (@MarcACaputo) October 19, 2017