Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) Official photo
The mother of a soldier that was killed along with three of his fellow soldiers in an ambush in Africa has said President Trump disrespected her son with his remarks during a phone call to her son's widow Myeshia Johnson that was intended to offer condolence. Sgt. La David T. Johnson, a member of a United States Army green beret special forces unit was killed in the African nation of Niger. There is lots of secrecy and lots of controversy surrounding the mission and who ordered it and what went wrong. But that is another issue that will be playing out of the days and weeks ahead.
But here we focus on what Trump did and what Kelly did. President Trump made the condolence call to Sgt. La David T. Johnson's widow, Myeshia Johnson, after conferring with retired marine general John Kelly and now Trump chief of staff about what to say. Trump made the call and apparently offended the soldier's mother Cowanda Jones-Johnson by saying something like her son the soldier knew what he signed up for, knew what he was getting into, but I suppose it hurts anyway. In addition to Sgt. La David T. Johnson's mother and widow, family friend and apparent mentor to La David, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) was among those listening to the call on speaker phone which was apparently received while all were passengers in the same vehicle.
The mother of La David Johnson told the press that President Trump “did disrespect my son” with his remarks in the condolence telephone call. Congresswoman Wilson confirmed and agreed with this assessment. Of course the press was all over this story and all hell broke loose in the press coverage.
In a press conference defending Trump, John Kelly went on the attack against Congresswoman Wilson, calling her an empty barrel and accused her of a disrespectful and inappropriate self congratulatory and self promoting speech at a 2015 dedication ceremony opening a new FBI building in Miami and the naming of the building after two fallen FBI agents. A video, available on the web and on YouTube, of the dedication ceremony of the Miami FBI building clearly shows that Kelly was dead wrong. In no way was Wilson's speech self promoting. Rather it was bipartisan, praising both Republican and Democratic support in getting the naming of the building on time for the dedication ceremony and it praised the work of dedicated and brave FBI agents in the work they do to keep citizens safe.
So Kelly was clearly clearly wrong.
Here's what I think happened. It is no excuse, but I think Kelly felt guilty about Trump screwing up with a very clumsy interpretation and implementation of advice given to him by Kelly, when Trump asked Kelly what to say to the grieving mother of a fallen soldier. According to Kelly he told Trump I tell you what I would say (I'm paraphrasing here) - that the fallen soldier was doing what he loved and was serving with fellow soldiers whom he respected and who were all fighting for their country, something that he wanted to be doing and was proud to be doing, something he had signed up to do, and that should be of some comfort to a mother, though nothing can really ease the pain of losing a son. Kelly said during his press conference defending Trump that he did indeed counsel Trump along these lines.
Trump took Kelly's counsel and clumsily botched it as could be predictable since he has no facility with eloquent language and lacks an empathetic strain in his personality (goes with narcissism) and just blurted out to the mother that her son knew what he signed up for, but it hurts anyway.
Kelly felt a bit guilty that his advice had gone so awry, and felt he needed to defend his boss. Apparently so guilty that his advice had backfired so badly that he felt he had to make amends. Whether he volunteered to do the press conference or was asked to do it, I really don't know. But he did it, and he botched the defense by telling untruths and attacking the Congresswoman. Whether he knew or not that he was stating facts inaccurately hardly matters. They were unfounded and unfair remarks, and they echoed in clumsiness the way his boss had tried to offer condolence to a fallen soldier's widow.
Most at fault here is Trump. All Trump had to say was "I'm deeply sorry for your loss, and I offer you the deepest sympathy from the bottom of my heart. Our nation is deeply indebted to your son's sacrifice in his service to keep our nation safe."
And John Kelly should have kept his mouth shut and kept at his job of keeping order at the White House.