In emotional remarks in the White House briefing room Thursday afternoon White House Chief of Staff John Kelly — a former general whose son died on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2011 — pronounced himself “stunned” and “broken-hearted” to learn about “a member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the president of the United States to a young wife.”
It was a stunning rebuke of a sitting member of congress and Kelly paired it with an additional swipe at Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) who he claimed has exaggerated her role for securing funding for a new FBI building in the Sunshine State. In reality, both video evidence and reporters on the scene confirm that it’s Kelly who got the story wrong, misportraying what Wilson said at the dedication in order to make her look bad. And while it’s not surprising to see a member of the Trump administration say something false to the public, the personal involvement of Kelly — one of the better-respected members of the White House team — is a noteworthy development.
And it further extends a story that launched Monday, at an impromptu Rose Garden press conference that featured a question about why President Trump hadn’t spoken personally about the four American soldiers who died in Niger 12 days earlier.
This, one would have thought, would be the occasion for a public acknowledgement of their service and some mournful remarks about their deaths.
Instead, Trump delivered a peevish and defensive response that’s unleashed a multi-pronged political controversy.
"If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls — a lot of them didn't make calls. I like to make calls when it's appropriate," Trump said when asked why he didn’t call the families of the fallen soldiers.
Then the floodgates opened:
- Trump’s claim about Barack Obama’s record turned out to be a lie. Obama did in fact console grieving relatives of dead soldiers.
- Stories are swirling about insensitive remarks Trump made in a phone call with a grieving widow.
- Trump accused a member of Congress of lying about what he said in that phone call.
- Trump made a promise of $25,000 to a Gold Star father that was never delivered.
- Trump politicized the death of his chief of staff’s son, which his own press secretary said the chief of staff was “disgusted by.”
- It turns out an official condolence letter that was drafted by National Security Council staff was never sent.
- Last, we have Kelly misstating facts to discredit a member of congress who was consoling a grieving widow.
And though the entire controversy has been set off primarily by Trump’s lack of empathy, manners, and common sense rather than anything on the policy front, it’s drawing more attention to the underlying event — a military mission in Africa that few Americans were aware of where something apparently went awry.
Senator McCain says Trump administration not being up front about Niger attack— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) October 18, 2017
It’s a reminder that Trump’s impulsiveness, defensiveness, and habitual dishonesty are a big deal. Even on the most sensitive, most critical matters, he seems constitutionally incapable of keeping himself in check, and his staff — despite high hopes that retired Gen. John Kelly would bring a more professional approach to the White House as chief of staff — can’t do it for him.
It started with an ambush in Africa
The entire chain of events began a bit over two weeks ago with the death of three American soldiers on what the US government described as a “routine” patrol in the landlocked African country of Niger. Two days later, the Pentagon confirmed the death of a fourth member of the 12-man Special Forces detachment. The troops were ambushed, unexpectedly, in a situation where the military appears to have believed they would likely be safe.
Trump did not address the situation in the immediate aftermath of the news, preferring to focus his attention on tweets about the stock market, the NFL, and his various political feuds.
This was noteworthy, though not necessarily a huge political story. It’s never been the case that presidents comment publicly on every military death, and there are understandable reasons why the government might want to avoid calling additional attention to Special Forces operations. At the same time, though, the military deployment in Niger has been ongoing for some time. The United States is assisting the Nigerien government in battles against Islamist groups that claim affiliation with ISIS. It’s not something most Americans are aware of, and it could have been an occasion to educate the public about the mission.
But Trump, when asked 12 days after the ambush why he hadn’t commented, chose to turn it into a major story by smearing his predecessors and claiming they didn’t contact the families of fallen soldiers.
“The traditional way if you look at President Obama and other presidents,” Trump said, “most of them didn’t make calls — a lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it.”
Outrage at Trump’s lie came fast and furious
Alyssa Mastromonaco, a deputy chief of staff in the Obama administration, tweeted that Trump’s accusation was “a fucking lie” and derided the president as “a deranged animal.”
that's a fucking lie. to say president obama (or past presidents) didn't call the family members of soldiers KIA - he's a deranged animal.— Alyssa Mastromonaco (@AlyssaMastro44) October 16, 2017
Ben Rhodes, a top NSC official and probably Obama’s closest confidant on national security matters, called Trump’s remarks an “outrageous and disrespectful lie even by Trump standards.” Former Attorney General Eric Holder simply told Trump to “stop the damn lying.”
Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, who commanded US forces in Iraq for a time during George W. Bush’s presidency and went on to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Obama, also chimed in to denounce Trump’s remarks.
POTUS 43 & 44 and first ladies cared deeply, worked tirelessly for the serving, the fallen, and their families. Not politics. Sacred Trust.— GEN(R) Marty Dempsey (@Martin_Dempsey) October 17, 2017
When pressed on the claim later in the same press conference, Trump initially appeared to back down, saying, “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes, and maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know.” Yet he also seemed to suggest that if he was mistaken, it was the military’s fault, concluding, “All I can do — all I can do is ask my generals.”
But the next day, in an interview with Fox News Radio, Trump was back on the attack, saying, “You could ask Gen. [John] Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?”
Kelly has striven for years to avoid public mention of his son’s combat death in Afghanistan back in 2011, but he was in fact an honored guest at a May 2011 breakfast for Gold Star families at which he and his wife were seated at Michelle Obama’s table. At Wednesday’s briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Kelly was “disgusted and frustrated” by the way his son’s death has been politicized — a curious remark since it was their mutual boss, Donald Trump, who did the politicizing.
Trump is bad at making condolence calls
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the controversy over Obama’s alleged non-communication with grieving families is that Trump himself had not yet spoken to the families of the soldiers who were killed in Niger, though he did find time for multiple weekend golf outings.
But with the controversy in full swing this week, Trump did make calls on Tuesday.
Word then almost immediately filtered out via Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who was also present during Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of the late Sgt. La David Johnson, that the president told her Johnson “knew what he signed up for.”
If this was a hint as to why Trump’s staff may have been reluctant to schedule call time with fallen soldiers’ family members, the full extent of the problem was revealed later Wednesday afternoon in a shocking Washington Post story by Dan Lamothe, Lindsey Never, and Eli Rosenberg. They recounted a story from Chris Baldridge, the father of Army CPl. Dillon Baldridge, who was killed in an insider attack in Afghanistan back on June 10. Trump called Baldridge a few weeks after the attack, and during the call, Baldridge expressed frustration with the fact that under the military’s survivor benefits program, all of the Pentagon’s $100,000 death gratuity would go to his ex-wife. Trump, according to the Post, “offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened.”
Trump has often feuded with the military
Trump’s style of demagogic nationalism naturally leads him to a professed admiration for the military. And unlike the civilian branches of the government, Trump does seem to have some level of respect for military service as a form of experience that’s relative to government work — tapping a succession of generals for senior civilian positions in his administration.
But as my colleague Yochi Dreazen has written, Trump has, in practice, fairly frequently clashed with the military:
- Trump famously mocked John McCain’s military service, saying he prefers war heroes who weren’t captured.
- He later quite publicly attacked a Muslim Gold Star family who criticized his Islamophobic politics.
- During a campaign interview with Matt Lauer, he threatened mass firings of generals if they didn’t go along with his policies, which, at the time, included various vows to “take the oil” and commit assorted war crimes.
- In office, he blamed the military for a botched raid in Yemen rather than taking any responsibility for a mission he personally approved.
- He alarmed military leaders in July by comparing an Afghanistan policy review to a restaurant renovation. Later, he seems to have profoundly panicked military leaders by proposing a tenfold increase in the US military arsenal, after which, according to NBC News, officials “were rattled by the president’s desire for more nuclear weapons and his understanding of other national security issues from the Korean Peninsula to Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Beyond policy and knowledge of international affairs, discipline and protocol are important military values and not exactly important Trump values. So while the content of some of Trump’s conduct around military deaths is fairly shocking, it’s not exactly surprising that he’s struggled with this aspect of his job.
America’s going to have a real problem in a crisis
Phil Carter, a veteran and journalist, writes at Slate that the entire hullaballoo is a valuable reminder that the United States has, over a period of years, seemed to have slipped into a combat mission in Niger with little to no public debate or acknowledgment.
“The worst tribute we could pay to Sgts. Black, Johnson, Johnson, and Wright would be to ignore the cause they fought for,” Carter writes, “without any hard questions for their commander in chief about how or why they died, and what we purchased in national security with their lives.”
The even tougher questions, however, regard what it means for America to have a chief executive who’s capable of turning relatively minor problems into giant multi-day stories. Of all the questions posed by American military engagement in West Africa and an apparently sudden and unexpected shift in the threat environment, surely the absolutely easiest one to resolve is how to properly communicate with grieving family members.
Yet Trump has managed to completely and utterly botch this relatively simple job less than a week after creating a major diplomatic crisis with Iran for no particular reason. The humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico appears to be, if anything, intensifying as citizens cope with a chronic lack of safe water. The president has willfully destabilized individual health insurance markets without any clear plan and is actively scuttling congressional efforts to stabilize the situation.
Other serious challenges are lurking out there in the world, yet the Trump administration seemed incapable of issuing a simple condolence statement or answering a question about it without unleashing a multi-front political fiasco. It’s a sad story and an aggravating story, but, like so much else we read about the basic functioning of the Trump White House, it’s fundamentally a scary story.