He Knew What He Signed Up For

Let’s talk about this week’s news cycle.

On Monday, the president held an ad hoc press conference and the White House press asked him a reasonable question: has he contacted the families of the four soldiers who died in a military operation in Niger?

Here’s what the president could have said: “Unfortunately I haven’t yet contacted them, but I plan to do so immediately.” And then his staff could have cobbled together four letters of condolence, and he could have signed them, and they could have been sent, and the Trump administration could have congratulated itself on avoiding another self-inflicted nightmarish news cycle.

What the president did instead was to claim that Obama never called, and other former presidents never called, but what he liked to do was call and send a letter. He made a clumsy attempt at walking this back, but then he instructed his press secretary to double down on it.1

On Tuesday the president made phone calls to the four bereaved families. On Tuesday night it emerged that, according to Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who heard the call on speakerphone, the president had said “He knew what he signed up for” to a pregnant war widow.2

Again we are at a crossroads. Here’s what the president could have said: “I am very sorry for Mrs. Johnson’s loss and I feel terrible that I increased her pain in any way.”

Instead, on Wednesday morning Trump again doubled down, tweeting that the congresswoman was lying and he had proof.

This tweet, like so many, spawned dozens of news stories. The Washington Post started calling the families of soldiers who had died since Trump took office. Subcontroversies sprang up and then popped like soap bubbles all day: One family was instructed to wait by the phone for a presidential call that never came. One man was promised a personal check for $25,000 that also never arrived. (The check is now, reportedly, in the mail.)

And then yesterday, John Kelly, the president’s chief of staff gave an extraordinary press conference, in which he lost me entirely and forever. I’ll grant you that the part of the statement in which he talks about how the bodies of soldiers who die are returned to the country, and how the families of the fallen learn of their loved ones’ fates are very moving. And I do believe that Kelly, who lost his own son in combat, cares deeply about the troops. But because Kelly occupies one of the most powerful offices in the country, we should not allow those parts of the statement, or his own status as a Gold Star father to obfuscate other salient points:

  1. Kelly confirmed the essence of what the congresswoman said about the call. So if you were waiting for “proof” that she was lying, you are probably not going to get that.
  2. If Kelly is really upset that respect for women has diminished, he should probably not be working for President Grab Them By the Pussy.3
  3. If Kelly is really upset that respect for Gold Star families has diminished, he should probably not be working for the man who devoted several days to attacking Gold Star father Khizr Khan because he was mean to him at the Democratic National Convention.
  4. Kelly can’t reasonably complain that Congresswoman Wilson (who has been a Johnson family friend for decades) should not have been “listening in” on the condolence call when he just said he was also listening to it.
  5. Bringing up a speech that Congresswoman Wilson allegedly made about a totally different subject in 2015 is a transparent attempt at deflection4, particularly since he had already confirmed the essence of what she said. While we’re on the subject, calling her “someone that is that empty a barrel” does not exactly drip with respect for women. I thought women were “sacred,” General Kelly?

Kelly wants to make it seem as though the White House press has been terribly mistreating the Trump administration over expressions of condolence all week. No doubt that’s how Trump’s base wants to see it. And I’ve come to expect these delusions of martyrdom from Trump, but I honestly thought Kelly was smart enough and self-aware enough not to succumb to them.

This controversy is entirely the president’s fault. He was asked a fair question, and he bungled it, and then he continued to bungle everything related to it all week long. As always, he made multiple statements that were not true, and then doubled down on them, and then cried foul when they were found to be not true. Checking the president’s statements is what the White House press is supposed to do, because as a citizen, you should know–and you should care–if the president is lying to you. And you should care that the administration cannot summon up the minimum competence required to write and mail four letters of condolence in two weeks, because if they can’t do that, how are they going to handle an actual crisis?

Meanwhile the president is once again tweeting about the “wacky” congresswoman who “gave a total lie on content!” So clearly this week has been a fabulous learning experience for him.

1 I’m assuming he doubled down on it, because I’m assuming Sarah Huckabee Sanders is smart enough to realize that “The president misspoke” was the wise move in this situation.

2 My own theory about this is that John Kelly, in an attempt to help the president say something appropriate, suggested something about the sergeant’s willingness to put his life on the line and Trump’s brain scrambled it into “He knew what he signed up for.” I’m willing to believe the president wasn’t actively trying to make the aforesaid pregnant war widow cry harder. Which is apparently what he did.

3 I have an entire side rant about how treating women as “sacred” (as opposed to treating everyone with respect) is terrible for the world, but I’m restraining myself. You’re welcome.

4 In a particularly Trumpian twist, Congresswoman Wilson disputes Kelly’s account of her speech. Apparently no one’s unearthed a tape yet. But if Kelly couldn’t confirm it, then the story shouldn’t have made it into the statement, especially since what Wilson said about something else in 2015 is not remotely the point.