Is there something about Trump and his administration that attracts dishonest people? That’s one possible interpretation of recent events. Jennifer Rubin (Washington Post) stakes out a second position, saying that Trump makes himself, John Kelly and everyone around them look rotten yet again. That is, basically honest, dedicated public servants are corrupted once they experience the Trump environment, the President’s “swamp.” Or is it some of each? These questions are important because Chief of Staff (former) General John Kelly is embroiled in the controversy of the President’s making about what Trump said, or didn’t say, and when, about Special Forces Sergeant La David Johnson’s death in Niger. If working for the President demands that you defend the President no matter what, what happens when the President is caught out in a lie? What happens when the defense demands distorting the truth?
Ryan Lizza (Washington Post) has a slightly different version of what it takes to be in the White House today: John Kelly and the Dangerous Moral Calculus of Working for Trump. The bottom line: ”The White House chief of staff, John Kelly, is the latest example of how the President sullies the reputations of those who work with and for him.”
Anyone in politics or government who works for Donald Trump, whether on the payroll or in some other supporting role, is forced to make a sacrifice. Working for Trump means that one’s credibility is likely to be damaged, so there is a kind of moral calculation that any Trump supporter must make: Does working for him serve some higher purpose that outweighs the price of reputational loss?
There is a hierarchy of justifications for backing Trump. At the bottom are the spokespeople and purely political officials who are almost instantly discredited, because they are forced to defend the statements of a President who routinely lies and manufactures nonsensical versions of events. Sean Spicer learned this on his first day on the job, when Trump sent him into the White House briefing room to tell the press lies about Inauguration-crowd sizes. He never recovered. …
Republicans in Congress are a little farther up the pyramid. Many privately say that they believe Trump is a disaster of a President, an embarrassment to the G.O.P., and, as Bob Corker recently said publicly, echoing what he claimed were the views of most Republican senators, setting America “on the path to World War III.” They justify their support by noting that Trump will implement the core Republican agenda, and that alone is worth the price of a person at least some of them believe is unfit to be President. …
The tougher cases are at the top of the pyramid. The government needs to be staffed, and, especially in positions of national security, it’s hard to argue against anyone taking a senior position at the Pentagon, the State Department, or the National Security Council to insure that Trump’s worst instincts are contained. This, of course, was the moral dilemma of the three generals now in top civilian jobs serving Trump: Defense Secretary James Mattis; the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster; and the White House chief of staff, John Kelly. They were all generally respected for their military service, untainted by prior association with Trump, and their work in the Administration was generally believed to be a continuation of their service to the country by making sure our erratic President doesn’t fulfill Corker’s warning.
We learned this week that, even if you maintain the most sympathetic view of why these ex-generals continue to serve Trump, there is no way to work for him without paying the Trump tax on one’s reputation. Since joining the White House, Kelly has been viewed as a force for good. He helped defactionalize the West Wing by removing some of its most difficult personalities, such as Steve Bannon. He has implemented some basic processes that all modern White Houses have had, such as a system for controlling who meets with Trump and what information flows to him. But then, yesterday, he was dragged into the sordid spectacle of Trump’s fight with a congresswoman and the grieving family of La David Johnson, the Army sergeant who was killed in Niger earlier this month.
If you don’t know them already, you can read more about the details of all this below the break. But let’s continue with Lizza’s analysis.
Trump called Johnson’s widow to express his condolences. Some things that Trump said, rather than console, offended Myeshia Johnson, who allowed her local congresswoman and friend, Frederica Wilson, to listen to the call. After Wilson complained publicly about the tone of the call, Trump, rather than doing what any normal President would do by apologizing for any miscommunication, escalated the apparent misunderstanding into a Twitter war. The fact that Trump’s targets, a widow and a Democratic congresswoman, are African-Americans added to the sense that the President was, yet again, being racially divisive. Kelly, who rarely speaks publicly, stepped into the briefing room yesterday to defend the President. The most newsworthy comments he made concerned Wilson, who he said was an “empty barrel” who had once turned a ceremony meant to commemorate the deaths of two F.B.I. officers killed in the line of duty into a celebration of her ability to steer tax dollars to her district.
His attack on Wilson is worth quoting at length:
A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money—the twenty million dollars— to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, “O.K., fine.”
As was quickly reported, the video of Wilson’s nine-minute speech is online. Wilson did tell a story about how she; John Boehner, the House Speaker at the time; and Obama worked together to make sure that the building was named after the two slain F.B.I. agents in time for the event. She said nothing about securing funding (she was, in fact, not in Congress when the money was authorized) and nothing about “how she took care of her constituents.” She asked law-enforcement officials present to stand up “so we can applaud you and what you do,” adding, “we’re proud of you, we’re proud of your courage.” She then told the tragic story of the two agents who lost their lives. The speech bears no resemblance to the speech Kelly described. The White House chief of staff maligned a congresswoman, whose only crime seemed to be criticizing Trump, with a series of lies.
When a reporter at the White House on Friday asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the glaring discrepancy between Kelly’s account and the actual speech, she said that the White House stood by his remarks. “There was a lot of grandstanding,” she said. “He was stunned that she had taken that opportunity to make it about herself.” The reporter pressed: “He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was secured before she came into Congress.”
Sanders shot back with the kind of statement that would be normal in an authoritarian country, suggesting that Kelly’s previous military service placed him beyond criticism. “If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you,” she said. “But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
No, it is not. Kelly is the chief of staff and a political operative. He held a press conference and told a lie that smeared one of Trump’s political opponents. No government official’s military background, no matter how honorable, makes him immune to criticism, especially given the subject at hand. Sanders’s response was unnerving. But the bigger lesson of the episode is that no matter how good one’s intentions are, when you go to work for Trump, you will end up paying for it with your reputation. For Kelly, not even his four stars prevented that.
And the Washington Post’s editorial board said that John Kelly owes the congresswoman an apology. What Kelly does with this, or does not do, will be indicative of how his time in service of this president has dragged him into Trump’s moral swamp.
I’ll quote from Jennifer Rubin for the last word.
If you’ve decided after revisiting all of this that everyone, with the exception of the heroic Sgt. Johnson, his widow and his mother, looks shabby, you’re not alone. Trump apparently was trying to be nice but made the widow cry in his original call. Rather than apologize and move on, he spent two days lying, dragging others into the mess and ultimately distracting attention away from the slain serviceman and three others killed in Niger.
Kelly allowed himself to be used as a prop, simultaneously drawing on sympathy for his loss of a son and opportunistically spitting political venom at Wilson. (The Post reported, “The appearance was an attempt to tamp down a self-created and ballooning controversy over Trump’s contacts with the families of fallen soldiers.”) He didn’t express remorse for any upset suffered by Johnson’s wife or other family members because of the awkward call.
As for Wilson, she was telling the truth about the call, but acting more than a little too gleeful in ratting out the president when attention should have been on the Gold Star families.
Sometimes you just want the whole lot of them to go away.
We’ve grown sadly accustomed to watching Trump behave badly, punching “down” at those who call him out. The focus must always be on him, the perpetual victim.
Kelly’s conduct was a sad revelation, however, and a reminder that while he looks upon himself as serving the country (and he is), he is also enabling a dishonest, morally detestable politician.
As I said, it will be informative for us and for General Kelly to see what Kelly does next. I hope he does the honorable thing.
Below the break, from the NY Times, are more of the details: After Video Refutes Kelly’s Charges, Congresswoman Raises Issue of Race
Video of a 2015 speech delivered by Representative Frederica S. Wilson revealed Friday that John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, misrepresented her remarks when he accused her of bragging about securing $20 million for a South Florida F.B.I. building and twisting President Barack Obama’s arm.
Mr. Kelly, escalating a feud between Mr. Trump and Ms. Wilson, had cast the congresswoman on Thursday as a publicity-seeking opportunist. However, the video, released by The Sun Sentinel, a newspaper in South Florida, showed that during her nine-minute speech, Ms. Wilson never took credit for getting the money for the building, only for helping pass legislation naming the building after two fallen federal agents.
She never mentioned pleading with Mr. Obama, and she acknowledged the help of several Republicans, including John A. Boehner, then the House speaker; Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo; and Senator Marco Rubio.
Ms. Wilson, in an interview on Friday, called Mr. Kelly a liar and hinted strongly that the altercation, prompted by a call from President Trump to the widow of a fallen black soldier, was racially charged.
“The White House itself is full of white supremacists,” she said.
“I feel very sorry for him because he feels such a need to lie on me and I’m not even his enemy,” Ms. Wilson said of Mr. Kelly. “I just can’t even imagine why he would fabricate something like that. That is absolutely insane. I’m just flabbergasted because it’s very easy to trace.”
While she stopped short of accusing Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine general, of racial animus, she did say that others in the White House are racially biased.
“They are making themselves look like fools. They have no credibility,” she said. “They are trying to assassinate my character, and they are assassinating their own because everything they say is coming out and shown to be a lie.”
But Mr. Trump and his top aides remained defiant on Friday, even after the video was released.
Of course they would. And Trump’s chief press huckster, Sarah Huckabee Sanders weighed in by defending the administration’s lies.
Ms. Sanders escalated the messaging a few hours later: “As we say in the South: all hat, no cattle,” she said. Ms. Wilson is known in the Capitol and in South Florida for her colorful hats.
Ms. Sanders also told a reporter who questioned Mr. Kelly’s veracity that “if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
“It’s almost like General Kelly was telling the congresswoman, ‘You don’t know your place, you’re not supposed to criticize the president,’” said Mr. Jordan, who is black. “That’s how it looks to the black people.”
“It should have ended yesterday after General Kelly’s comments. But it didn’t. It continued,” Ms. Sanders said. “He thought it was important that people got a full and accurate picture of what took place.”
If that was his goal, Mr. Kelly failed. His recollection of Ms. Wilson’s appearance at the dedication of the F.B.I. building was highly inaccurate, and only ratcheted up the political tensions.