This past week’s news was dominated by the row over whether or not President Trump had disrespected the family of Sgt. La David Johnson while making a condolence call to the serviceman’s widow. Sgt. Johnson, an African-American, was one of four soldiers killed in Niger earlier this month.
That issue continues to play out in the news cycle this week, but it was part of the follow up that I found most distressing.
The President’s Chief of Staff, retired four-star Marine General John Kelly, defended Mr. Trump and offered his view of the controversy. Kelly is a Gold Star father; his son was killed in Afghanistan seven years ago. He is entitled to deference and respect on the issue of losing a family member in combat.
However, Kelly characterized as politically motivated the comments of Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Johnson family friend, who was listening in on the speakerphone conversation the President had with Johnson’s widow. Wilson criticized Trump’s words as insensitive. Kelly further called out Congresswoman Wilson for self-serving and disrespectful remarks she purportedly made at the dedication of an FBI building in 2015 that he also attended.
The building was being named for two FBI agents killed in the line of duty, and Kelly claimed Wilson’s remarks were all about her taking credit for funding the building and using her influence with then-President Obama. By doing so, Kelly injected himself into the story.
Unfortunately for Kelly, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel dug up a video of the event that disproved Kelly’s assertions, causing the web site Politifact to rate Kelly’s charges as “false.”
Kelly stood by his comments, leading the news media to ask for some follow up. When the media tried questioning Presidential Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the accuracy of Kelly’s comments, she said the media shouldn’t question Kelly.
“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that’s something highly inappropriate, Sanders said.
What is “highly inappropriate,” Ms. Sanders, is to suggest that the media has no right to question the statements of the President’s Chief of Staff. Kelly is no longer a Marine general; he is a senior political appointee of the Trump Administration. What would be grossly negligent on the media’s part would be not to question the apparent falsity of Kelly’s comments simply because he served our country as a top military officer.
As a retired officer, Kelly deserves gratitude and respect for his service and condolences on the loss of his son in the line of duty. What he doesn’t deserve is a free pass for apparently inaccurate comments made as a Presidential chief of staff. The Trump administration’s refusing to acknowledge the media’s right to pursue the questioning is a step toward an authoritarian government. That is certainly inappropriate under our Constitution and the First Amendment. In fact, it’s rather scary.
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