"Ah, John Kelly. Did you really have to go there? Did you really have to use your gravitas as a retired general and father of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to defend President Trump’s tantrum about a phone call?
We expected so much more when the president tapped you to replace former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus in July. After five decades of Marine Corps service, we expected you would bring a military precision to help guide this turbulent White House onto a steady, exacting path.
Yet there you were Thursday, entering the fray over the president’s phone call to Myeshia Johnson of Miami Gardens, whose husband, La David Johnson, was one of the four soldiers ambushed and killed in Niger two weeks ago.
We believe the president meant well when he called the 24-year-old widow. It had to be one the hardest calls he’s ever had to make. For what do you say to someone who’s just lost her husband, someone she’s loved since they were both 6 and with whom she’s had two children, with another on the way?
Video from 2015 shows full speech of Rep. Frederica Wilson at dedication ceremony of new FBI building in Miramar, Florida, named for two slain FBI agents. The speech has drawn attention after White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly criticized her for claiming "she got the money" for the new building. (Sun Sentinel Video)To help find the words, he turned to you. You suggested he not make the call. As you recounted Thursday, you said presidents write letters, but don’t generally call the families because the only phone calls that matter are those from their child’s buddies. “In my case, hours after my son was killed, his friends were calling us from Afghanistan, telling us what a great guy he was,” you said. “Those are the only phone calls that really mattered.”
You undercut your case, though, by telling him that President Obama didn’t call after your son, Robert, was killed in battle. You know President Trump well enough to know he sees himself as the anti-Obama.
So you helped him find the words. You shared what a friend had told you when Robert died — that he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed, that he knew what he was getting into by joining the military, that he knew the possibilities of war.
From your perspective, those words offered solace.
But you’ve got to grant Myeshia Johnson her perspective, too. And sitting at the airport awaiting her husband’s mangled body, she was an emotional wreck. Plus, questions remain about the mission and how he died. And why did it take two weeks for the president to address this deadly event?
With her was Rep. Frederica Wilson, whom many know for her hats, but whom we know as a powerful community advocate, a former high school principal and the creator of a role model program for at-risk boys. Wilson has known the Johnson family for a long time and joined them to meet the plane.
Frederica Wilson 2015 video shows White House Chief of Staff John Kelly got it wrongYou said Thursday you were stunned to hear our congresswoman had “listened in” on the president’s call. Stunned, you said a second time, as though Wilson had done something nefarious. But is it so inconceivable that someone getting a call from the president might put the phone on speaker so others can hear?
We weren’t there. Neither were you. But Wilson was. And she said the president’s words were not comforting. Rather, they were insensitive. “What he said was, ‘I guess he knew what he was signing up for but it still hurts.’ That’s how he said it.”
When Wilson went public with the hurt, the president tweeted that she had “totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof.) Sad!”
Proof? His spokeswoman said there was no recording, but others in the room had heard what he said, including you.
So there you were Thursday, taking the podium to powerfully argue the president’s perspective, not the widow’s.
And you went low.
You began, though, by essentially saying Wilson was right, that the president had said Johnson “knew what he was getting into.” Is that so different than “knew what he was signing up for?”
Then you relayed a story from two years ago, when you attended the dedication of Miami’s FBI facility. You said our congresswoman boasted of getting the $20 million needed to build the building, named for two agents killed in a firefight with drug traffickers. We’ll forgive you for getting one of their names wrong. They were Benjamin P. Grogan and Jerry L. Dove, not Duke.
“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,” you said.
An empty barrel? What does that mean? It sounds like a slur. To the congresswoman, it sounds racist. Given that you used it twice, it deserves definition.
To the bigger point, though, sir, you got it wrong. Wilson never boasted about getting money for the building, which by the way, cost $194 million.
As a Sun Sentinel video of the occasion shows, when Wilson took the podium, she told a story about people on both sides of aisle working together to quickly pass a bill to name the building for Grogan and Dove. She lauded Republicans and Democrats alike for making it happen in four weeks, just in time for the dedication ceremony.
She also noted how “most men and women in law enforcement leave their homes for work knowing there’s a possibility they may not return.” Then she asked those in law enforcement to stand up “so we can applaud you.”
The video shows many people in the audience rising to their feet. Did you stand? Do you remember the applause?
Wilson ended by asking everyone to repeat, after her, the FBI’s sacred motto.
Fidelity. Bravery. Integrity.
It was a hopeful speech about people working together to honor our fallen agents.
For this, you call her an empty barrel?
As we said, Mr. Kelly, we expected much of you.
Now, on behalf of our congresswoman, we expect an apology."