The spotlight should be on the fallen soldiers who gave their lives for this country.
Instead, we’ve all been plunged into another anguished round of finger-pointing, blame-shifting and all-around nastiness that is nothing short of sad. Everyone is caught in the media crossfire and the deaths of brave Americans have become politicized.
Now there’s no denying that President Trump opened the door at his Monday news conference when he was asked why he hasn’t spoken publicly about the four soldiers killed in Niger. He turned that into a suggestion that Barack Obama and other presidents rarely or never called the families of the fallen, triggering vehement denials from former Obama aides.
The president may not have intended to pick this fight, but the next day he questioned whether Obama had called John Kelly, now his chief of staff, after he lost a son in Afghanistan in 2010. (Obama had not, but invited Kelly, who became a Marine general, to a breakfast for Gold Star families.) Kelly has always been private about the pain of that loss.
So now the media had a full-fledged Trump controversy, perfect fodder for cable segments and hot takes online.
Never mind that, with few exceptions, the press provided scant coverage of the deaths in Niger. How many Americans even know why we have troops in Niger?
But now it’s a Trump story, and it’s dominating the entire week.
The president’s call to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson became the next flash point. Cowanda Jones-Johnson told the Washington Post that Trump "did disrespect my son."
Democratic congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who heard the call, has been all over TV vehemently attacking the president. She says he told Jones-Johnson that her son "must have known what he signed up for." The White House defended the call, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling the congresswoman’s conduct "appalling and disgusting." She added that it's "a disgrace of the media to try to portray an act of kindness like that and that gesture, and try to make it into something that it isn't."
An emotional Kelly came into the briefing room yesterday and said he was "stunned" and "broken-hearted" to hear Wilson’s "selfish" criticism of a presidential call that he thought was a fine attempt to say that Johnson died among the best in the country, that this was what he signed up for. "I thought at least that was sacred," said Kelly, adding that he sought solace during a stroll at Arlington National Cemetery.
Obviously, in this climate, the disputed call is news. But let's say Trump stumbled during the call, or meant to say that anyone who goes into the armed forces knows there are risks and we are grateful for his service.
Is the press really whipping itself into a frenzy over how the president made a call that is so difficult to make, trying to comfort a mother who has suffered the ultimate loss?
By the same token, it was news when the Post interviewed Chris Baldridge, the father of an Army sergeant killed in Afghanistan, who said Trump offered to send him a personal check for $25,000—but that the money never arrived. The check was apparently sent after the Post story was published.
But with journalists calling every Gold Star family they can reach—and CNN putting on a grief-stricken relative who didn’t get a Trump call—I have to ask: What other president has been held to this standard?
I'm with General Kelly on this point: the men who died in Niger were heroes. The behavior of just about everyone else in this melodrama has been less than heroic.