It’s pretty clear that what happened on the recent phone call between President Trump and Myeshia Johnson, the widow of a U.S. soldier killed in Niger.
The president tried to do the right thing by calling the spouse of someone who gave their life defending our country, a gesture meant to show our appreciation for his sacrifice. Unfortunately, he expressed that sentiment in a way that the widow found offensive.
By itself, there is no scandal there. Speaking to someone who just lost a loved one is difficult for anyone in any situation, especially when you do not know them personally. The added sorrow from that death being sudden just compounds the difficulty of finding the right words.
Unfortunately, that simple explanation was not enough for the president or his advisers, and the result has been a string of reckless attacks that justify the outrage in a way the original comments never did.
The president was elected because of his ability to lead boisterous rallies of dedicated fans, not because he made careful, nuanced statements about highly emotional subjects. He chose to try and do the latter here even though he was not required to, and any failure to strike the right tone could have been chalked up to inexperience or the emotionally fraught nature of the situation.
Even the two specific mistakes that most upset the widow – stumbling over the soldier’s name, and use of the phrase “he knew what he signed up for” – have innocent explanations. Sgt. Johnson’s full name is unusual (La David), and it’s perfectly reasonable to this veteran to infer that “he knew what he signed up for” was meant as admiration for a willingness to serve despite the well-known dangers of doing so, especially given the type of unit Sgt. Johnson was in.
The president could have certainly done better, but he was coming from the right place.
Yet instead of making this straightforward point and issuing a simple apology for any miscommunication, the president immediately went on the attack, dragging out the issue and undermining any sympathy for the gravity of his original task.
Much has been written about the president’s “counterpuncher” mentality and how it was honed in the New York real estate market, but this was not a negotiation and not the right time to punch anyone.
After this happened, we quickly saw how this pugnacious instinct has apparently seeped down into the president’s advisers as well, causing them to stumble in similar ways when trying to defend him.
John Kelly, the retired four-star general who serves as White House chief of staff, is not known as a controversial person, and he reacted to the dispute by making an emotional speech from the press briefing room that attempted to express what I have above – that the president was trying to laud Sgt. Johnson’s service in the face of danger when referencing “what he signed up for.” Kelly also movingly discussed the death of his own son, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
Again, stopping there would have been effective, and an example of trying to do the right thing. But like the man he works for, Kelly had to go on the attack, and like the president, he recklessly trampled on a perfectly good approach by doing so.
Shortly after Trump had called out the widow of Sgt. Johnson, Kelly was lobbing insults directly at a friend of their family, Rep. Frederica Wilson, calling her an “empty barrel” who vaingloriously used a ceremony in honor of two slain FBI agents to promote her own role in funding the building that was being named after them.
There was just one problem – that never happened. A video of the ceremony shows that Wilson never behaved as Kelly described, said what he quoted, or even discussed funding for the building at all. Kelly also seemed unaware that Wilson was a longtime friend of the Johnson family and had created a mentoring program which Sgt. Johnson had graduated from. As the Johnson family explained, this is why she was invited to join them during the call, not because she intruded due to her political office, as Kelly repeatedly suggested.
By combining these falsehoods with a speech describing what it was like to hear of his son’s death in combat, Kelly ended up using his moral standing as a Gold Star father to promote an inaccurate and unnecessary attack. It was deeply sad, and his failure to apologize afterward has made the situation even more unfortunate.
It didn’t have to turn out this way. Both President Trump and John Kelly were initially trying to honor the pain that Sgt. Johnson’s widow was experiencing, one as commander in chief and the other as a parent who had experienced similar grief. But their need to attack – not to just do their jobs as best they can, but to assert a kind of infallible superiority – led them both astray. It’s an all-too-common problem in today’s politics, and it is a shame that it has tarnished what should have been a sacred moment.