The Anguish of John Kelly

The White House chief of staff decried the desacralization of military deaths—but it was the president he serves who politicized condolence calls.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly made some extraordinary remarks during Thursday’s White House briefing. They were extraordinary not only because Kelly seldom speaks on the record to the press and was doing so for the second time in a week, but also for the deeply personal nature of what he said—discussing the death of his son in combat, a topic he has in the past been careful to avoid. Yet Kelly’s defense of President Trump, who is embroiled in a self-inflicted crisis over his condolences for the families of fallen servicemembers, also contained the grain of a strong rebuke to the president.

Kelly began with a description of what happens when a soldier, sailor, marine, or airman or -woman is killed in battle. Then he said:

Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you as Americans don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate but required.

Kelly’s point is correct—as my colleague James Fallows wrote in 2015, the military is increasingly cut off from the mainstream of American culture, with terrible consequences for both. (It is a critique that sweeps in the president, who assiduously avoided serving in Vietnam.)

On Wednesday, Representative Frederica Wilson said that in a call to the family of Sergeant La David Johnson, who died in Niger earlier this month, Trump had told Johnson’s widow, “He knew what he was getting into when he signed up.” Trump denied ever saying that, but as I wrote on Wednesday, it seemed possible that Trump had simply been speaking about soldiers’ sense of duty. And that’s what Kelly, contradicting Trump’s denial, said. Kelly said the president had asked him what to tell the family.

I said to him, “Sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families. Let me tell you what I tell them, let me tell you what my best friend Joe Dunford told me, because he was my casualty officer, 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. And when he died’—in the four cases we’re talking about Niger and my son’s case in Afghanistan—‘when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends.’ That’s what the president tried to say to four families the other day.”

Kelly then laced into Wilson. “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me,” he said. “When I listened to this woman and what she was saying and what she was doing on TV, the only thing I could do to collect my thoughts was to go and walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them. Because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery. Went over there for an hour and a half, walked among the stones, some of whom I put there because they were doing what I told them to do when they were killed.”

He then continued to attack Wilson on other matters, but the core of his critique was that she had improperly politicized the matter. (Wilson’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

It’s hard to hear or read Kelly’s words about his son’s death and not be moved, especially given his reticence in the past; his decision to open up now seems telling, even if it’s not immediately clear what it tells. Likewise, his defense of the president’s call as well-intentioned is plausible, and his comments about the insulation of military grief from most of society are important. But the charge of politicization is less credible, not because of anything Kelly said, but because of who he works for.

After all, it’s Trump who, when asked about the deaths in Niger during a press conference on Monday, opted to personalize the question and treat it as a challenge to his reputation for offering condolences. It is also Trump who, in that answer, unfairly and inaccurately accused previous presidents of not offering condolences. (Kelly confirmed that he had told Trump that Obama did not call him after his son’s death, though he added, “That was not a criticism.” Contra Trump’s jab, he suggested it was reasonable for presidents not to call every family, especially during periods when there are many casualties.) And it was Trump who, as further reporting has revealed, was not telling the truth about having called all or nearly all of the families of servicemembers who died during his presidency.

Kelly argued that the political debate over the past few days was proof of the coarsening of American culture.

“When I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country,” Kelly said. “Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That’s gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.”

It wasn’t clear what “recent cases” Kelly meant; it would be surprising if it was a reference to allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein and others, coming from the chief of staff for a man caught on tape boasting about sexual assault. It’s hard to know exactly what Kelly meant with that final sentence, but one reading is that it is a swipe at Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents who spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Trump responded to that speech with days of insult and attacks on the Khans. Kelly may very well have a valid point about the politicization of military suffering, but if he wants to single out culprits in that desacralization, he could start with his boss’s comments, from both last summer and this week.