“You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,” White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said Thursday. Among those were Gold Star families: “I just thought—the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.”
But Kelly acknowledged that might no longer be true: “Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.”
Then on Monday morning, Kelly’s boss decided to prolong a feud with the widow of a fallen American soldier:
I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 23, 2017
Trump’s peculiarly self-contradictory tweet—I was totally respectful, he said as he called the widow a liar—came in response to a brief interview Myeshia Johnson gave to Good Morning America Monday morning. Trump called Johnson Tuesday night, after being questioned about his reticence on the deaths of four Special Forces soldiers in Niger in early October, and boasting that he offered better condolences than his predecessors. (As my colleagues Lena Felton and Taylor Hosking report, the White House then mounted a hasty effort to make Trump’s statements true.)
The call didn’t go well. According to Representative Frederica Wilson, a Democrat, Trump said that Sergeant Johnson knew what he was signing up for when enlisting in the Army; she also said Trump didn’t use Johnson’s name, seeming to forget it, and had left the Johnson family crying. La David Johnson’s mother Cowanda Jones-Johnson confirmed the story, but Myeshia Johnson had not spoken to the press. It was Wilson’s public comments that aroused Kelly’s fury, including an attack on the congresswoman that turned out to be factually wrong.
Kelly, in addition to attacking Wilson, offered a plausible account of what had happened: Kelly, a retired four-star general, told Trump about how General Joe Dunford, now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had consoled Kelly after his son Robert Kelly was killed in Afghanistan. Dunford told Kelly that his son had died doing what he wanted to do, alongside his friends. Trump seems to have delivered that message with less finesse (never mind that such a conversation between two generals is different than a conversation between a grieving widow and a draft-avoiding president), but offering condolences is hard. Kelly presented a version that made Trump seem well-intentioned if clumsy.
On Good Morning America, Myeshia Johnson gave George Stephanopoulos her account of the call:
The president said that he knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway. And it made me cry ’cause I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said he couldn’t remember my husband’s name. The only way he remembered my husband's name is because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him and that’s when he actually said La David. I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name and that’s what hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risked his life for our country why can’t you remember his name. And that’s what made me upset and cry even more because my husband was an awesome soldier.
Shortly after that interview, Trump tweeted his claim that she was not telling the truth.
This is not, as John Kelly implied with his remarks about the convention, the first time that Trump has feuded with a Gold Star family. After a dramatic appearance by Khizr and Ghazala Khan, whose son Army Captain Humayun Khan was killed in Iraq in 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, Trump traded blows with the Khans for days. The sight of a presidential candidate going after a Gold Star family shocked the nation, and many analysts believed it would hurt Trump’s campaign.
To see President Trump, now the commander in chief, wage a rhetorical fight with a Gold Star widow today falls into the ever-growing category of Trump actions that are shocking but not surprising. (Notably, both cases involve soldiers and families of color.) This is another case of Trump refusing to let anything go. With Kelly’s justification in hand, the president could have apologized for any misunderstanding, insisted he meant well, and moved on. Time and again—from his falling out with FBI Director James Comey to his claims that Barack Obama “wiretapped” him to his exaggerated claims about condolences—Trump’s insistence on never letting go has gotten him into trouble. Because he refuses to back down, making the debate about his bruised ego, he has forfeited the benefit of the doubt about his intentions in the call with the Johnson family.
Did Myeshia Johnson make herself a legitimate target for Trump’s political attacks when she granted the interview to Good Morning America? There will be Trump defenders who argue she did, much as Khizr Khan did by appearing at the DNC. Yet such a pat statement ignores complications. For one thing, Johnson had watched as the president, his chief of staff, and press secretary fiercely attacked Frederica Wilson, a family friend, for dishonesty; it’s understandable that Myeshia Johnson wanted to set the record straight. “Whatever Ms. Wilson said was not fabricated. What she said was 100 percent correct,” she told Stephanopoulos.
Besides, Johnson had already been thrust into the political spotlight through no choice of her own besides marrying a brave man. Moreover, she is a pregnant mother who has just lost her husband in service of his country, and has been told she cannot even see his body. Grieving family members are often angry, and common politeness holds that they be granted some leeway to express that anger, even when that involves contradicting the president publicly (and, yes, perhaps even when they appear at the opposing party’s convention). That’s especially true when her husband died serving as a United States soldier, the sacred act that John Kelly invoked last week.
Trump evidently has little interest in the norm Kelly sought to defend, which is little surprise, since he is the one who turned a question about a botched military operation into a referendum on consoling Gold Star families. If the administration’s accusations of politicization were somewhat hypocritical before, the president’s tweet has shown how utterly empty they are.