Dereliction of Duty

A week of silence speaks volumes about John Kelly.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly waits to speak during a White House briefing on Oct. 19 in Washington.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Three months ago, when John Kelly became President Trump’s chief of staff, the retired general was hailed as a truth-teller who could clean up the White House. Nobody thought the crazy tweets would stop, but there was hope that some of Kelly’s decency might rub off on Trump. Instead, Trump’s dishonesty and unwillingness to apologize appear to be rubbing off on Kelly.

As the New York Times points out, Kelly has long shared Trump’s hawkish views on immigration. But now there’s a broader, more ominous development: Kelly is allowing himself, and his distinguished record of military service, to act as a shield for Trump’s fabrications. In the fallout over Trump’s condolence call to a widow, Kelly has issued and refused to correct false statements, and he has allowed his service to be invoked as grounds not to question him. This has gone on for more than a week, while Kelly shows no repentance. He is losing the presumption of honesty.

A week ago, Kelly had an opportunity to set the record straight, after days of dissembling from the president about his condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. The controversy began on Oct. 17, when Rep. Frederica Wilson—Myeshia Johnson’s congresswoman and a mentor to La David Johnson—was in a car with the Johnson family and overheard the call on speakerphone. Wilson told reporters what Trump had said to Myeshia Johnson: that her husband “knew what he signed up for … but when it happens, it hurts anyway.”

Trump didn’t like Wilson’s comments. “Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof),” he tweeted on the morning of Oct. 18. Even after other members of Johnson’s family confirmed Wilson’s account, the president accused Wilson of lying. Speaking to reporters at noon that day, he insisted: “Didn’t say what that congresswoman said. Didn’t say it at all. She knows it.” Again, he claimed to have “proof.”

Trump was bluffing. At that afternoon’s White House press briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders admitted that there was no recording, but she suggested that the administration had something just as good: the word of Kelly, a four-star general who was also on the call. “Gen. Kelly was present for the call and thought it was completely appropriate,” Sanders told reporters.

The next day, Kelly appeared at the press briefing. He repeatedly denounced Wilson for having “listened in” to the call. This was nearly 48 hours after news reports had made clear that Wilson had heard the conversation on a speakerphone only because she was in the car with Johnson. While lecturing the press and the country about old-fashioned values, Kelly accused Wilson of delivering a self-serving speech at the dedication of an FBI field office in Miami in 2015. He claimed that during the speech, she had “talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building” and how she “called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money, the $20 million, to build the building.”

Kelly’s attacks on Wilson emboldened Trump. That night, Trump tweeted that Wilson “was SECRETLY on a very personal call, and gave a total lie on content!” But Kelly was wrong on all counts. Not only was Wilson innocent of subterfuge on the call; she also hadn’t said what Kelly attributed to her in 2015. On Friday morning, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel posted video of Wilson’s 2015 speech. She had spent most of the speech praising law enforcement officers. She had thanked Sen. Marco Rubio, former House Speaker John Boehner, and other colleagues for naming the building after two fallen FBI agents. She had said nothing about funding or a phone call with Obama.

Kelly was now at the center of a web of smears. His falsehoods were feeding Trump’s, and the White House began to hurl more charges, ostensibly on Kelly’s behalf. At her Friday briefing, Sanders was asked whether Kelly stood by his statement that Wilson, in her 2015 speech, had taken credit for funding the Miami FBI office. Rather than concede error, Sanders suggested that Wilson had made the comments somewhere else:

Sanders: She also had quite a few comments that day that weren’t part of that speech, and weren’t part of that video, that were also witnessed by many people that were there.

Reporter: Like what?

Sanders: What Gen. Kelly referenced yesterday.

Reporter: Well, tell us specifically. Because if he’s going—

Sanders: Exactly what he said: There was a lot of grandstanding. He was stunned that she had taken that opportunity to make it about herself.

Reporter: Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point so that he can get the facts straight?

Sanders: I think he addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday.

Reporter: No, he was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was secured before she came into Congress.

Sanders: If you want to go after Gen. Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Sanders was insinuating that the White House had secret evidence, that Kelly knew what it was, and that anyone who challenged him was unpatriotic.

That afternoon, in an interview with Maria Bartiromo, Trump again cited Kelly as a supporting witness to the condolence call. The interview aired on Sunday. Still, Kelly said nothing. The next day, on Good Morning America, Johnson backed up Wilson’s account of the call: “What she said was 100 percent correct. It was Master Sgt. Neil, me, my aunt, my uncle, and the driver and Ms. Wilson in the car. The phone was on speaker phone. Why would we fabricate something like that?”

A week after his initial charge, despite being contradicted by the Johnson family, Trump hasn’t backed down. Nor has Kelly. Why hasn’t Kelly apologized to Wilson? Because, according to the Times, “White House officials” say they want “to avoid extending the story.” To them, it’s a story, not a smear to be withdrawn. They won’t even put Kelly’s name on the refusal to apologize. The chief of staff takes no responsibility.

Sanders, ignoring the video of Wilson’s 2015 speech, continues to defend Kelly’s characterization of the congresswoman’s remarks. “I don’t think that Gen. Kelly was wrong, and therefore I don’t think he should offer an apology,” Sanders told reporters Monday night. “He has a lot of credibility on this topic, and a lot of credibility in general, given the life of service that he has lived.” At Tuesday’s White House briefing, Sanders repeated: “I don’t think he has anything to correct.”

If ever there were a tangle of falsehoods that one man could straighten out, this is it. Kelly heard the phone call. He made the bogus claim about Wilson’s speech. He’s the witness who, according to Sanders, saw Wilson grandstand about the FBI building in some still-unspecified appearance. He’s the man whose military authority the White House invokes as a substitute for evidence. Kelly must tell the truth: Is Wilson’s account of the call a fabrication? Is he mistaken that she took credit for funding the FBI building? Where and when did he see her grandstand about it? Or is that persistent claim by Sanders baseless? And does Kelly agree that no one should challenge the word of a four-star general?

By answering these questions, Kelly could begin to show that he’s serious about cleaning up the White House. If he doesn’t, everyone from Trump down will get the message that the lying can go on. And we can all stop listening to Kelly’s lectures about decency and courage.