WASHINGTON ― White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Friday that it would be “highly inappropriate” for them to question chief of staff John Kelly because he served in the military as a general.
“If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that is up to you,” she said. “If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that is something highly inappropriate.”
The controversy arose over Kelly’s appearance at the press podium on Thursday, when he went after Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). Wilson said she heard President Donald Trump’s condolence call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who died in a combat operation in Niger. Wilson was appalled at what Trump said: that Johnson “must’ve known what he signed up for” when he enlisted in the military.
The White House, including Trump, tried to cast Wilson as a liar.
Johnson’s mother, however, backed the congresswoman up and said, “President Trump did disrespect my son and my daughter and also me and my husband.”
The White House then shifted tactics, saying the congresswoman ― who is a close friend of the family ― shouldn’t have been listening in on the call anyway. Kelly then went after her as a publicity hound. To illustrate his point, he recounted an event in April 2015, when he went to the dedication of an FBI field office in Miami, which was being named after two agents who had died on the job:
And a congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call, he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building, and she sat down. And we were stunned, stunned that she’d done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.
Kelly, either intentionally or not, fabricated what happened. His story is simply not true, as video from the event later showed. Wilson did not brag about getting money for the building (because she wasn’t in Congress when the funds were allocated), and she didn’t make the event all about herself.
The only reason Kelly’s lies were exposed was because journalists did their job and looked at the veracity of what a powerful person said. That’s what a free press does.
But the Trump administration thinks that should stop. When a reporter asked Sanders Friday why Trump tweeted about Wilson again, the press secretary criticized reporters for continuing to talk about this story. She said reporters should have let Kelly have the final word and dropped the matter.
“Just to finish on the rest of your question of why the president felt the need to respond, it’s because it should have ended yesterday after General Kelly’s comments. But it didn’t,” she said. “It continued, and it’s still continuing today. It’s still the bulk of the coverage on most every TV you turn on and most every newspaper that you open up today.”
Kelly is a retired four-star Marine general. But that fact is irrelevant to whether journalists are allowed to question and criticize him. The military does not run the country.
But under Trump ― who never served in the military ― generals have been given increased control and the military has taken a more central role. Early on, Trump decided to nominate retired Gen. Jim Mattis for the role of defense secretary. Traditionally, presidents choose civilians for that position. Mattis had to receive a waiver to be confirmed because he retired less than seven years ago.
Trump also considered having a showy display of military might during his inaugural parade.
With Kelly serving as chief of staff, that trend continues. At Thursday’s press briefing, Kelly asked journalists if any of them knew anyone who had died serving in combat. If they did, they were entitled to ask him a question.
“Is anyone here a Gold Star parent or sibling? Does anyone here know a Gold Star parent or sibling? OK. You get the question,” he said pointing to a man who indicated he did.
As New Yorker writer Masha Gessen wrote Friday, “This was a new twist on the Trump Administration’s technique of shunning and shaming unfriendly members of the news media, except this time, it was framed explicitly in terms of national loyalty. As if on cue, the first reporter allowed to speak inserted the phrase ‘Semper Fi’—a literal loyalty oath—into his question.”
“It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation, absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred,” Kelly added on Thursday, essentially saying that a civilian shouldn’t have the right to even hear a conversation dealing with military matters because in Trump’s America, she isn’t worthy.
UPDATE, 8:50 p.m. ― Sanders attempted to clarify her remarks in a statement Friday evening.
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