When White House Chief of Staff—and Gold Star parent—John Kelly, on Thursday defended Donald Trump’s call to the newly widowed Myeshia Johnson, he was somber and sincere, which is refreshing. But he was wrong.
Context matters. From another person, at another time, observing that Sergeant La David Johnson “knew what he signed up for” by joining the Army wouldn’t have sparked outrage. But consider what else Representative Frederica Wilson—with the backing of Johnson’s mother—has alleged: that Trump didn’t know Johnson’s name; he repeatedly called him “your guy.” And that Trump’s tone was oddly jovial: “He was almost, like, joking.”
Above all, consider what we know about the way Trump discusses pain and death. This is the man who congratulated Puerto Ricans—whose island had been utterly devastated—for losing only “16” and not “thousands of people.” The man who told a crowd in Corpus Christi on August 29, while 30,000 Texans were displaced, “It’s going well.” And who said after touring the convention center where thousands of Houstonians were taking refuge that, “We saw a lot of happiness.”
Donald Trump minimizes suffering for which he might be held responsible. That’s likely what he was doing in his conversation with Myeshia Johnson. And it’s not just insensitive; it’s dangerous. As the former Missouri Senate candidate, and former Army intelligence officer, Jason Kander observed on Wednesday night on CNN, people say, “He knew what he signed up for” because “they are seeking emotional distance from the situation. People say that because they want to avoid feeling that pain.” That’s worrying, Kander added, because “I want the president, any president … when they’re making a decision about sending people to a dangerous place, I want them to have as one of the things in their mind, the visceral, emotional feeling” that comes from absorbing a widow’s inconsolable grief.