Race, lies, and videotape: John Kelly’s attack on Rep. Frederica Wilson is an attack on democracy itself
Kelly’s attacks on Florida Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson — over how Trump handled the combat death of a U.S. soldier — were a mix of fabrications, militarism, and authoritarianism. They show contempt for democratic principles. Kelly also spoke in language reeking of a military coup, indicating that he believes his job is to control “sorry” civilians, the 99 percent of Americans who are not active-duty soldiers.
And Kelly’s broadsides recall Trump’s instinct to attack racial minorities whenever he lands into trouble of his own making.
Given how Trump spews falsehoods and generates controversy to divert attention from his train-wreck presidency, it’s worth remembering how this controversy began.
On Oct. 4, four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger. The Special Forces soldiers may have been set up by local leaders they were meeting with, and the mission reportedly suffered from poor intelligence, and a lack of preparation and contingency planning. It recalls Trump’s approval of a poorly planned raid on Yemen that resulted in the deaths of up to 30 civilians and one U.S. soldier.
For the next 12 days Trump was silent about the soldiers deaths, consumed with the urgent work of Tweeting about NFL players, “Liddle’ Bob Corker,” Fake News, Mike Pence’s football game stunt, “badly broken” Obamacare, and how Puerto Rico’s financial crisis was “largely of their own making.”
On Oct. 16, when questioned directly about his silence, Trump pivoted to attacking past presidents. Claiming, falsely as usual, “The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls” to relatives of soldiers killed in combat. (Trump backpedaled on this claim in the same press conference.)
In other words, Trump politicized how presidents respond to the deaths of U.S. soldiers. Then Trump upped the ante. The next day he dragged Kelly into the mudpit by saying Obama didn’t call the four-star general when his son died in 2010.
The uproar exploded that same day when Rep. Wilson recounted the call Trump made to the family of one the dead soldiers, Sgt. La David Johnson. A decades-long friend of the Johnsons, Wilson accompanied his pregnant widow, Myeshia Johnson, to the airport to receive her husband’s remains. On the car ride over, Johnson received a call from Trump that was put on speakerphone.
Wilson listened in on the call. As did Johnson’s mother. As did John Kelly.
Wilson told a TV station that Trump told the grieving Myeshia Johnson that her now-dead husband “knew what he signed up for … but when it happens, it hurts anyway.” Wilson said Trump’s comments were “so insensitive.”
Trump reacted with more falsehoods, calling Wilson’s claims “totally fabricated.” The problem for Trump is that Johnson’s mother verified the conversation.
Cowanda Jones-Johnson, confirmed Wilson’s account to the The Washington Post, adding “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”
What’s lost in the controversy is how Trump treated the Johnson family.
Politico reported that Wilson said, “The sad part about it is, he didn’t know La David’s name. [Trump] kept calling him ‘your guy.’ Your guy did this. Your guy did that. … everyone knows when you go to war, you could possibly not come back alive. But you don’t remind a grieving widow of that. That’s so insensitive.”
Wilson added that Myeshia “was crying the whole time, and when she hung up the phone, she looked at me and said, ‘He didn’t even remember his name.’ That’s the hurting part.”
This is the controversy Kelly choose to wade into. He did so by delivering his remarks from the White House briefing room. Kelly said he was “stunned” that a member of Congress “would have listened in on that conversation” and was “brokenhearted” at the “selfish behavior” of a member of Congress.
Kelly also delivered a bizarre exposition on what is no longer “sacred” in America — women, life, religion, Gold Star families, and “the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield.” In Kelly’s mind, the sacredness of combat deaths was “eroded a great deal” by Wilson, whom he called “this woman.” Maybe Kelly was discretely criticizing Trump who’s besmirched everything he holds sacred, but Kelly never referenced him like he did Wilson.
Kelly can be excused for not knowing, at least at first, that Wilson has known the Johnson family for multiple generations, going back to when she was a principal at an elementary school that La David’s father attended. So Wilson had every familial right to be in on the call. For that alone she deserves an apology from Kelly.
But even if she wasn’t a friend, Wilson had every democratic right to be in on the call as the Congresswoman for the district in which the Johnson family lives.
That is just one reason Kelly’s attack is so dangerous. He elevated soldiers above the rest of the society, as “the best 1 percent this country produces,” combat soldiers as “the best men on Earth,” and those who die in combat, as “the finest men and women on this Earth.”
This was no accident. Kelly pleaded with the media to “keep … sacred” the deaths of soldiers in combat. When it came time to take questions, of which he only took three, each time he limited it to reporters who were “a Gold Star parent or sibling” or those who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling.”
The Trump White House seized on Kelly’s militarism like hyenas on a fresh carcass. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters it was “highly inappropriate” to question Kelly because he’s a “four-star Marine general.” Sanders added that the controversy “should have ended yesterday after General Kelly’s comments.”
It’s noteworthy that Sanders comment about it being highly inappropriate to question Kelly came in response to his false claims about Wilson. So, to the Trump administration, generals can’t be questioned even if they may be lying.
Kelly wrongly accused Wilson of grandstanding during the 2015 dedication of an FBI field office in Miami, saying she took credit for the funding when the ceremony was about two agents who had been killed in action and whom the building was named for.
Reporters quickly revealed that Kelly was aping his boss in spreading falsehoods. Wilson, as video showed, told of how she worked with Republicans to rapidly expedite the process for naming the building after the slain agents. She never took credit for funding.
Kelly got other major elements wrong about the episode, such as the amount of money involved and the fact that the funding was approved even before Wilson entered Congress.
Even more significant is that Kelly thinks he has every right, as a white man, general, and Gold Star parent, to listen in on Trump’s call. But Wilson’s presence profaned the call, despite the fact she is a family friend and representative in Congress, which is the only body empowered by the U.S. Constitution to declare war.
Maybe it irked Kelly that “this woman” is an outspoken Black woman. Kelly attacked Wilson for doing her job, which involved defending the family and memory of the only African-American among the four soldiers who died in the raid in Niger.
Kelly seems to be drinking Trump’s white supremacist Kool-Aid. He serves a president whose rise to power is a compendium of anti-Black racism, whether it is housing discrimination, calling Blacks “lazy,” leading the lynch mob against the innocent Central Park 5, acting as birtherism-in-chief against Obama, saying African-Americans are “living in hell,” attacking Black athletes peacefully protesting against police brutality he encourages, saying there are “very fine people” among murderous Neo-Nazi mobs, trying to strip Blacks of the right to vote, labeling Black Lives Matter activists as terrorists, and abandoning 3 million Black and brown U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico to barbaric conditions. Then again, Trump is an equal-opportunity racist when it comes to Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and every other minority.
But this time, in choosing to beat up on Wilson, Trump and Kelly found someone who punches back harder.
Wilson countered administration criticism by saying, “The White House itself is full of white supremacists.” Gen. John Kelly can now count himself among those ranks as well.