Few in media have disparaged President Donald Trump more harshly than I have. But I and the rest of his critics need to be careful. If we want credibility, particularly with Trump always attacking us for “fake news,” we must be painstaking as we do our jobs, particularly when a story seems too grotesque to be true. A case in point is the controversy over the call he made to Myeshia Johnson, the grieving widow of Army Sgt. La David Johnson, one of four special operations troops killed by ISIS forces while on patrol in Niger.
Prodded by reporters at a White House news conference, Trump decided to make a sympathy call from the commander in chief. He reached Mrs. Johnson on her cellphone as she sat in a car with family members, along with Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who happens to be a longtime friend. According to Rep. Wilson, the call did not go well, and Trump’s remark that “But you know he must’ve known what he signed up for” was insensitive to an extreme.
Sure enough, Trump went to Twitter to attack Rep. Wilson: “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof). Sad!”
The proof he was referring to were subordinates who were listening in and could vouch for him. They included chief of staff John Kelly, the steely former Marine general who was brought in to bring order to a chaotic White House. He also is the father of 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan combat seven years ago. Gen. Kelly has insisted since then that he keep his and his family’s agony private.
So imagine the surprise of reporters when he came to the briefing room to share his feelings of disgust. “I was stunned when I came to work yesterday, and brokenhearted, when I saw what a member of Congress was doing,” he said.
President Trump was echoing the words Kelly had described hearing from friends back in 2010 when he got the devastating news that his son died on the battlefield, words that provided a measure of comfort: “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed” and “He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were, because we were at war.”
That, said Kelly, is exactly what his boss the president was trying to communicate to the Johnson family in their depths of sadness. Rep. Wilson’s dismissive comments afterward, that “John Kelly’s trying to keep his job,” seemed petty.
We in the media need to make sure we don’t appear petty. President Trump has bounced from one ugly controversy to another, and we have gotten used to his constant showers of brutishness — so used to them, perhaps, that we now expect the worst each time we hear the words “Donald Trump.” We need to make sure that we aren’t lulled into the sense of outrage that so frequently defines the Trump presidency. This is a good example. Gen. Kelly’s raw wounds will never heal. But he was willing to set the record straight and remind us we need to get the record right.