White House could use some role models

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St.  Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected]

BY ERIC MINK

A few days from now, the members of the Kelly family will mark the seventh anniversary of the worst day of their collective lives, the day they became a Gold Star family.

It was Nov. 9, 2010, when the Kellys — husband and father John F. Kelly, the current White House chief of staff; wife and mother Karen; daughter Kathleen; elder son John, now a Marine Corps major; and daughter-in-law Heather — learned that their son, brother and husband, Robert, had been killed.

At the time, Robert Michael Kelly was 29 and a Marine second lieutenant working out of a remote outpost in the Sangin district of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, about 90 miles northwest of Kandahar. On that day seven years ago, Kelly was leading a platoon on foot patrol when he stepped on an explosive device and died instantly. He received a posthumous promotion to first  lieutenant.

Today, as the anniversary of that tragedy looms, chief of staff Kelly, a retired Marine general, is only three months into his White House job and already stained by a regrettable and avoidable controversy that began unfolding about two weeks ago.

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And it seems a particularly cruel irony that the conflict arose after a well intentioned but badly executed condolence call from Kelly’s boss, President Donald Trump, to the pregnant wife of a U.S. service member recently killed in combat.

As president, Trump necessarily bears principal responsibility for his handling of the call and especially for launching a flurry of false statements and false accusations after news of the bungled call became public.

But Kelly, who retired after a successful 45-year career in the Marines in a wide range of combat, command and administrative positions — and with more experience in bereavement situations than he ever would have wished — definitely shares some of the responsibility.

Primary mission objective:To the extent possible under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and with infinite variations from individual to individual, a condolence call from the president would have been meant to provide some measure of comfort to Myeshia Johnson, the six-months-pregnant widow of U.S. Army Special Forces Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Fla.

Johnson and three fellow soldiers died early in October in the African nation of Niger during operations whose exact nature is not yet clear. U.S. military authorities are conducting an investigation.

But Trump and Kelly failed to achieve the mission’s primary objective.

Trump’s call from the White House to Myeshia Johnson came Oct. 17 as she arrived by limousine at Miami International Airport to pick up her husband’s remains. Accompanying her were some close relatives and a longtime family friend. She asked the military casualty officer assisting her to put the call on speakerphone so everyone in the car could hear the president.

As Myeshia Johnson explained in an Oct. 23 interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Trump’s call made her already overwhelming distress worse. She said the president emphasized that Sgt. Johnson had known what he was getting into when he enlisted, though he understood that the death still hurt. Trump also couldn’t remember her husband’s name, she said, and didn’t seem sympathetic. She said she was crying so hard she couldn’t speak.

Her explanation matched descriptions reported days earlier by two people who were in the car with her and heard the call: Cowanda Jones-Johnson, an aunt who raised Sgt. Johnson from the age of 5 after his mother died; and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D.-Miami, a longtime family friend who has known both Sgt. Johnson and his wife since they were young children. 

Trump responded to news coverage of Wilson’s account with a Twitter post accusing Myeshia Johnson of “fabricating” the details of the call, a blatantly false charge.

In fact, the accounts of Myeshia Johnson, Jones-Johnson and Wilson were consistent with a broad description of the call given by Kelly in an Oct. 19 session with reporters in the White House briefing room. Kelly had been with Trump when he made the call.

Kelly said Trump had asked him in advance for advice on what to say to Myeshia Johnson. In response, Kelly told the president what his best friend, Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. − then the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff − said on Nov. 9, 2010, when Dunford told Kelly that his son Robert had died.

“He said, ‘Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died … he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.’ That’s what the president tried to say to four families [including Johnson’s] the other day,” Kelly said.

The words had been helpful to Kelly in the context of a face-to-face conversation between best friends and Marine combat veterans. But it was poor judgment on Kelly’s part to think that such an approach might be comforting to a young widow in a phone call with the president, a stranger to her. Nor was there any reason whatsoever to believe that  Trump possessed the sensitive communication skills to successfully execute such an approach.

But Kelly did not admit to the reporters that, at the very least, the administration failed to communicate clearly to Myeshia Johnson that it honored Sgt. Johnson’s sacrifice and was deeply sorry for her loss and that of her family. Nor did Kelly take responsibility for having given the president bad advice about how to handle the call.

To the contrary, Kelly made things worse. As his boss had done before him, Kelly used demeaning language to level false charges against Wilson. He recalled having attended a dedication/naming ceremony for a new FBI headquarters in Miramar, Fla., on April 10, 2015. Kelly claimed to have been “stunned” (a word he used six times) that Wilson used the occasion to make self-aggrandizing statements taking credit for having ensured federal funding for the building’s construction.

A video recording of Wilson’s remarks by the South Florida Sun Sentinel shows that Wilson made no such statements. Rather, she described her role and that of other legislators in satisfying an urgent request from the FBI that the building be named for Benjamin Grogan and Jerry Dove, FBI special agents who died heroically in the line of duty in Florida in 1986.

About a week ago, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who often has clashed publicly with Trump, was asked whether the president was an appropriate role model for American children. 

“Absolutely not,” Corker replied.

When Kelly retired from the Marines last year, his personal qualities and career achievements had earned him high regard, respect and admiration as a professional and as a human being. He would be well advised to bear in mind that Trump is no role model for a chief of staff, either.